Today, while waiting to meet with my PI, I was reading this article about students needing to feel like they can succeed in assignments if they are going to actually be engaged in classes and learning. In short, if students don’t feel like their effort gets them anywhere or doesn’t provide the desired outcomes then they’ll quickly lose interest in the course. They might drop the course or stop trying to do well.
This article was perfectly timed because my meeting included me asking to drop a course that was consuming far too much of my time. I read through the article thinking “yup…yup…that’s me!” as I related much of the content to what was happening in my class.
The class is something I’m very interested in, computational modeling, but I have very little experience with the material. I took this class as an intro, to learn some of the basics, which the professor teaches rather well. However, his assignments assume far more knowledge and skill than he is willing to teach. I found myself spending countless hours trying to convert his abstract and compacted notation into usable computer code to do his assignments. It only took 3 homework assignments in 3 weeks to push me over the edge. I had lost so much sleep, all three of those weekends, and was behind on research goals, all from one class. Even the two assignments I did finish, I was not confident in the answers I handed in.
The article was funny because the author discussed how it can be easy to know what it takes to be a professional athlete, but that doesn’t make it any easier to actually become a pro. This is what I was feeling with these assignments. I knew what I needed to do. The professor was good at teaching that. But the actual execution, the how, was far out of my grasp. It’s easy to say an IronMan just requires swimming, biking, and running. I can do all three of those easily, it’s the full bit of HOW you do them. I can’t swim 2.4mi and then bike 112mi, and THEN run a marathon. My professor was essentially just saying “go do an Ironman, it just involves some simple swimming, biking, and running, it should be easy.” I think I’ll pass…
So after a rough weekend, I gave up, just as the article predicted. I decided the effort wasn’t worth my time. I can learn the same content on my own, sans grading. I can take my own pace and still get sleep.
This concept seems critical to higher education delivering on its purpose to grow and disseminate knowledge. A lot of courses, especially those in fields like pre-med or pre-law like to weed students out because of the high incoming demand for those degrees. The concept of attainable successes can help weed out students I suppose, by guaranteeing that assignments are so difficult that almost no one can completely succeed. That’ll quickly squash any motivation for those subjects! But I think that’s the opposite of what should be done. Professors and other educators should keep in mind what students can reasonably learn in a given amount of time, and make sure to reinforce it and provide opportunities for successes, both large and small. This builds confidence, and probably continued curiousity in a subject. Those two things are critical to discovery in my book.