How do we bring the findings on motivation to the classroom?

A few of the readings/videos for this week described the phenomenon that when a reward is placed for the production of good work, it inhibits our ability to do well. They also state that allowing people to work on projects that they came up with and are interested in facilitated immense imagination and superb results. But how does this information translate to the classroom?

In most classroom environments, student passively learn information and reproduce that knowledge on an exam to ‘prove’ that they ‘learned’ it. While I think most of us agree that the majority of students are memorizing for the short-term and not learning for the long-term, the students still need to be taught information and take the time to understand it. It’s hard for them to be imaginative in producing a product pertaining to class information if they don’t already know it. So, how can we take this information that we know from learning and assessment and apply it to our learning environments?

I think we need to take an interdisciplinary approach to teach students and ensure that they are taking in the information. First, students will have to be taught in a very typical manner. But after going over information, instructions can have the students work in groups or by themselves on example problems or have a class discussion. Instructors should also ensure that when they are going over problems in class that they are of similar difficulty to that of the homework or exams. If the difficulty level is much higher on homework and exams than what was presented by the teacher, students feel that they are not grasping the content and lose motivation.

In the last couple weeks of the class, instructors could stop assigning traditional problem based homework move to a group of individual project. But, instead of assigning a specific project, the instructor could ask the students to come up with a project of a certain criteria and present it to them before they begin work on it. This could facilitate students doing work on projects that they are motivated by.

In all of this, I am still unsure of how to approach grading. I feel that students will remain unmotivated in interacting with the material if they are not given a grade. However, I think that presenting material and going over problems that is commensurate withe the level that is found on homework and exams will aide in the stress students feel towards grades. In addition, we should have less of an emphasis on bell curves and failing people and use grades as a way to prove to ourselves that we are good teachers. If our students have an 85% average in the class, they will be happier and feel more respected, and we can take that as an indicator that we are doing well because our students are learning. Taking away grades entirely and making instructors give oral exams to each individual student to understand their grasp of the material also creates a lot of work additional work. If we move the emphasis in classes away from grades and more toward learning, everyone will benefit.


Do we need to be taught how to learn?

All the way through my early years of education and college, I took to learning the material in my classes through repetition and rote memorization. After about a year and a half into my master’s degree, I realized I was never learning to understand but simply just memorizing the material. This was a huge detriment to my knowledge base because I basically memorized for an exam and subsequently forgot everything. Now that I am having to use some of the material from my undergraduate classes for my research, I am having to go back and re-learn “the right way”. I really began to see the difference in learning methods when I came to VT for my Ph.D. I had to take a few deficiency courses to graduate with an Engineering degree, which was mostly math courses. In undergrad, these courses were very hard for me and I just thought I wasn’t very good at math. But now that I had to go back and take additional courses, I tried actually learning the material by understanding. I was listening in class and actually taking the time to understand why something was a certain way The ridiculous part is that I was studying for significantly less time and doing really well in the class. There were times that I didn’t study at all and got a top score. It was amazing to me. After employing this new found method (to me, anyway) it was like a light bulb went off in my head.

Ellen Langer in “Mindful Learning” suggests that this phase I was in and broke out of may be rooted in the way we teach and are taught from a really young age. She states that being taught to repeat information to learn at a young age may instill in people that this is THE way to learn. I can attest that this was how I was taught to learn by both my teachers and parents. Probably the worst example of this comes from my high school biology class. The professor would give us a set of 150 multiple choice questions to study from and he would choose 50 to be on the exam. I was so good at recognizing patterns, I didn’t even read the problem on exam day and just circled the answer based on the answer choices and usually the first couple words of the question. I always finished first, usually in about 5 minutes, and always got the top score. But I didn’t learn anything, at least not for the long term.

How many people go through this and what does it say about our education system? To me, it seems that how we learn to learn is instilled in us at a very young age. If someone learns to learn by memorizing and are simply tested on knowing the material, that person may never break that habit. I was only able to break that habit by staying in school past undergrad. We need to make students think by challenging their knowledge base. Using exams to test their knowledge only enforces rote memorization.  Adding more and more exams further enforces that because they have so much to know for the next exam, they simply memorize to get through it and then forget.



Can lecture be engaging in all subject areas?

We talked a little bit in class this week about professors that have successfully engaged their students in a lecture setting and found ways to “reach them” with the subject material. Coming from a chemistry background, I am trying to think of ways of keeping students engaged in classes like organic and analytical chemistry. At some point, students need to just sit down and read the book. However, I believe we can do better in the classrooms where these subjects are taught.

I am in a class right now with a really great professor. In this class, we are learning the causes of air pollution and ways of mitigating it. I have been in similar classes before with similar subject material and every time, the time spent in class has been dull. It’s always been very passive learning on the part of the students with the professor talking at the class and doing little to engage them. But this professor is different. During class, she finds ways of working in current news topics, discussing public resources on air quality, and gives time to work on problems in class. These pieces of the lecture make the material real for students and break up the dense and monotonous 1.5-hour lecture that would typically be definitions, equations, and material.

All of this is to say that we can do better. While at some point, students need to sit down and learn the material by reading and practicing, lecturers need to get students to care. This can be done by making the material hit home, having them do problems so they feel like they have a starting point on the homework, or breaking up the lecture into different pieces. to keep them engaged.

But what about classes like organic chemistry. There aren’t many current news articles on topics related to organic chemistry meaning that they probably can’t engage students with current happenings this subject area. However, I have a few ideas that can make these lectures less excruciating. It may require that the professor get creative and even cover less material. But, would it be worth it if the averages on the exams were higher than 55%? Which is unacceptable in my opinion. No matter how you spin it, the professor is at fault. Either they aren’t teaching, they aren’t engaging, or their exams don’t match the level they are teaching. Anyway…, these professors can break up the class with problems, have students do intermittent presentations on reaction mechanisms, do small (and contained!) experiments followed by a discussion of what happened, or even do a one-day field trip to a chemical plant or lab. If I may add, my professor did none of this while I was in chemistry and the exam averages were definitely a 55% or lower! Was it the students or the professor? We’ll never know.

This may also be an issue for classes in the humanities. I have taken few classes in the humanities but for the ones I have taken, professors fill class time lecturing at students rather than letting them interact with the material. Lecturers teaching these classes can probably work in discussions or student presentations or maybe even field trips. While most professors feel pressured to cover as much material as possible in a semester, what good is it if students only take home 20% of it? It’s almost better to slow down and find ways to engage students. It will be less of a waste of the professors time and less excruciating for the students.