Motivating students – when “giving a sh*t” meets the “oh sh*t” moment

Think about the students you have the most difficult time dealing with. Plagiarists. The back row slouchers. The grade grubbers who complain their A- is not an A. In-class texters. The sleepers who are dead to the world. Know-it-alls who insult other students with in-class comments and then don’t listen to the rest of the class. The smart kid who won’t say a peep in class but then complains about their class participation. The student who wants you to tell you exactly how you want the paper. The student who writes that you are impossible to please on the end-of-class evaluations. We all have them. Some educators take the approach of taking pleasure in these students’ failures, saying that these students deserve to fail. And maybe they do. But sometimes they need motivation. Or more importantly, a way to tap into their own motivation and keep it charged.

The people who run the Onion must have known about these kinds of teachers. How else could you explain the brilliance of the timing of the release of In the Know: Are Tests Biased Against Students that Don’t Give a Sh*t? This video entered into the viral world of the Internet and social networks last summer, just at the point when teachers were planning out their syllabuses and anticipating encountering a new crop of students. Four or five of my Facebook friends shared the video on the same day it was posted, many with knowing nods of approval.

At the time I first saw the video, I was preparing for class visits in the first round of First-year Seminars at Cornell. Normally if I visit a class, I have a specific lesson I’m asked to teach. For many of these classes though, I had more leeway to just talk to the class about writing and the transition to college. I thought the video might be a good hook to start off with.

My first instincts were to use it alongside the typical first-year of college pep talk. College is different. You have to work. Read your books. Don’t procrastinate. Talk to you teachers. Essentially, I’d show them the video and say: don’t be the kind of student that doesn’t give a shit, and you won’t end up at Kinkos.

Then I thought about the humor of the video. The way satire works to point out the mechanical processes of society that continue on even though everyone knows there’s a better way. Everyone I showed the video laughed, which meant that everyone I showed the video got it. Even students.

So the thought occurred to me: if everyone knows that giving a sh*t is fundamental to success, why do we get kids that don’t appear to give a sh*t?

I thought back to my college career. I always loved the start of the semester and the blank slate it brought. To celebrate, I bought new office supplies: notebooks, pens, file folders, and item that would be most important in keeping me on track, one of those assignment book calendars with the school logo emblazoned on the front.

In my parents’ house, I have eight of these assignment books. When I flip through them, I find the first week filled in, all items crossed off. After the first few pages, the weeks are nearly blank. What happened? Did I stop caring? No, I still cared. I just got into the semester. The system I had tried to put in place collapsed, and I fell victim to old habits of procrastinating and taking short cuts.

I was a smart student. I was capable of getting good grades, but I didn’t do things I knew would help me. Why? Because the stress of the semester started and my best intentions didn’t pan out. In other words, I started having my first “oh sh*t” moments of the semester

The “oh sh*t” moment is the point when caring about success encounters a difficult task. In college, these are the times when a student first starts doubting themselves or feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes they’re paper deadlines; other times, they’re problems that seem impossible. They’re the moments when we look at the expectations set for us to meet and we begin to doubt that we can. When we begin to doubt ourselves and the expectations of others overwhelm us, we start looking for the quickest, safest way out of that situation. Then the bad habits begin and we morph into those kinds of people we hate.

In other words, the “oh sh*t” moment is the single biggest cause of all of the behaviors we hate seeing in our students.

It’s easy to say that these students don’t truly value their education. Or that they need a reality check. I know some professors take joy in delivering that reality check, reminding students how much they’re paying to sit in class and text their friends or handing out McDonald’s applications stapled to poorly written papers. But all of these students (except of course the sleepers who are dead to the world) laugh at the Onion video. They already know that not caring leads to less success. It’s not that these students don’t care. Most of them care too much, or about the wrong things. Many of them have hit too many “oh sh*t” moments and now just are holding on for the ride. Many of them have been asked so many rote memorization questions that when we ask them to think critically, their brains short out, wondering if they can afford to take the risk of looking stupid or possibly failing.

The single most important thing you can do to set a student up for success is prepare him or her for the moment when “giving a sh*t” meets the “oh sh*t” moment. The educational experience, if properly constructed, is one challenge after another. Good teachers put their students in “oh sh*t” moments from the start of their class through to the end. The best teachers put their kids in “oh sh*t” moments and also teach them to love the challenges that these moments present. These are the teachers that truly change lives.

The “oh sh*t” moment is obviously one that I value, and as I want to be one of the best teachers, I try to find ways to prepare students for these moments. I’ll share the ways that I do this later on in the blog, but I’m curious to hear about how others do this. And as the “oh sh*t” moment has already been made it into a tag, I figured I’d get the explanation for it out now and come back to it.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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