This month marks the end of my fifth year as the Writing Consultant for First-year Students at Cornell College. In my position, I spend the bulk of my time working with students one-on-one, but I also teach in writing classes across the curriculum and consult with faculty who want to include more writing in their first-year classes. That work has pressed me to redesign my teaching style and ultimately made me a better teacher.
I came to Cornell College just out of graduate school. I’d taught and planned my own courses and considered myself a fair to good teacher. Now, when I look back at the mistakes I made during those years, I cringe. My most egregious sin was relying too much on my rapport with students and not enough on planning lessons designed to challenge students.
Now, the circumstances of my class sessions mean that I can’t rely on having a good relationship with the students to cover over shoddy teaching practices. In most courses, I only teach one or two lessons for an hour or two. Having no previous history with students to draw on, I walk in cold and must try to read the room to adjust the tone and level of my presentation on the fly. I consult with professors before hand to figure out what skills to emphasize, but I am generally not an expert in the content taught in the class. Those challenges impelled me to learn more about the habits of good teachers and to research educational psychology. These ventures resulted in making me a more creative, more organized, and more versatile teacher.
During the last half decade, I’ve learned a lot. Those lessons will be organized here into five posts, each centered around one of five words that have come to define my teaching and how I understand what matters in education in general. The first of those words, persistence, is discussed here.
persistence — College admissions offices ask for proof of an applicant’s readiness to enter college in the form of measurements of a student’s intellect. Research confirms that high school GPA and standardized tests predict fairly accurately who will succeed at the college level. Intellect is, however, only one part of the equation. A 2012 review of articles on predictors of collegiate success conducted by Michelle Richardson, Charles Abraham, and Rod Bond found that a number of non-intellectual traits also correlate with success at the college level. Performance self-efficacy, academic self-efficacy, grade goal, and effort regulation all function as relatively reliable predictors of which students will succeed in college. (The authors define these measures respectively as “perceptions of academic performance capability,” “general perceptions of academic capability,” “self-assigned minimal goal standards,” and “persistence and effort when faced with challenging situations.”) If we used these to create a class of perfect college students, they would all see themselves as capable scholars who hold themselves to high standards and persist in their pursuit of those goals in spite of challenges placed in front of them.
The importance of this first trait, a student’s belief in their own capabilities, has been a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy since the start of my career. In the interview for my job, I mentioned that I didn’t believe that there was such a thing as a good writer or a bad writer: there are only writers who have produced good material and writers who haven’t produced good material yet. The “bad writers” I work with have no clear understanding of their own writing potential. Instead, they’ve internalized negative writing experiences, which frequently linked to poor instruction or to other complicating issues outside of their control, and those negative experiences convinced them they can’t do any better. Over the past five years, that philosophy hasn’t changed. The name of this blog reflects that and the message remains part of the first talk I give to first-year students.
The strategy behind telling students that they have no clear grasp of the limits of their own potential is to show them that they only have to work hard to succeed; in my perfect world, I hope that will inspire visions not unlike those in the montage that separates the second and third act of a Rocky film; only instead of punching a side of meat, carrying half a tree trunk through the snow, or celebrating victoriously at the top of the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, these students hone topic sentences, elegantly weave in block quotes, and celebrate finally learning when to use a colon.
Perhaps, that was a bit ambitious. Most students already lock into whatever image they had of themselves in their mind before they graduate high school. The students who come in believing they are good writers struggle, but respond to coaching and learn to write at the college level. Those who were not in that category effectively accept mediocrity and are eager to get past any courses that require them to write. I suppose that makes sense. If “performance self-efficacy” and “academic self-efficacy” play as much of a role as determining who will succeed at the college level as the analysis of Richardson, Abraham, and Bond say they do, then it is unlikely that they are changed as easily as telling students that they can do better.
It is tempting to take this lack of change as a reason to be pessimistic or even cynical about modern students. I wouldn’t be alone. This week’s cover of Time magazine calls today’s college students and twenty-somethings “The Me Me Me Generation” and claims that “millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” The author Joel Stein seems to think that they’ll ultimately save us all because of the ways that they think differently about the world, but it’s clear that their current label is what’s moving more magazines. It is a rite of passage for the older generations to mock the younger generations for their lack of motivation. About four years ago, The Onion posted a video in which a mock cable news panel discusses the question of the day, “Are tests biased against students that don’t give a [crap]?” (I’ve cleaned that last word up to keep a PG rating on this post, but you can find the uncensored version fairly easily online.) When the video originally went online, I saw a number of teacher friends sharing it. The video spoke a truth about some of their students, whom they saw mindlessly going through the motions, putting in minimum effort and praying that some miracle would save them from having to try harder. I too know those types of students. The standards they have set for themselves seem to fall well short of those others have for them. They inspire frustration because I want to help, but can’t seem to reach them. Those students don’t seem to care enough about their own education and would presumably rather laze around and wasting tuition money than dedicate themselves to improvement.
However, I won’t call these students “lazy.” Labeling a student to be lazy is an unnecessary moral judgment, and ultimately, not very useful, perhaps even harmful. Granted, a student who invests five hours each day into video games and one hour into homework lacks sufficient motivation to improve, but lazy is too strong of a word. When a student is convinced they cannot do better, labeling them as lazy can just as likely motivate negative change as it can positive. Many students who see themselves as lazy tend to lapse slowly into apathy. Lazy feels like a fixed and definitive character trait; lack of motivation is conversely a temporary state, one that is not easily overcome, but one without the permanence of a character flaw.The burden for changing such destructive behavior falls on the student, but if I want to do all I can to help them do that, I need to understand where their lack of motivation comes from.
No one approaches learning with the apathy that many students develop in late high school and college. We’re physiologically programmed to enjoy the act of learning; the brain rewards us when we do it (although equating learning with school is admittedly specious.) Many of the students who struggle with persistence can still describe times when they were young and felt the thrill of learning something challenging. If I ask students what it was like when they learned to tie their shoes on their own or rode a bike without training wheels for the first time, their eyes light up and their lips almost unconsciously curl into a smile as the pride they felt from working hard and achieving starts to creep back in. Somewhere along the journey from bike riding to college, the ego starts gumming up the works. Setbacks pile higher until we can’t see the way past them. The psychological and sociological risks of trying and failing can feel overwhelming, so with most students, my goal is not trying to get them to care; they know how to do that. My task is trying to find a way to make it feel safe to care again.
When I do get students to a point where they believe that improvement is possible, we have great conversations about how they can improve. A change comes over them, and they seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about their education. Some even get excited about being able to break out of the apathy. A tangible sense of relief comes over them when they realize they can move past the bad habits that have come to define too much of who they are.
Still, for too many students, reform is only temporary. I see them a week later, and they haven’t done anything. It’s not that they’ve stopped caring, but sitting down to change is a tough task, one that requires a good deal of self control. True reform means facing up to your shortcomings and dealing with the shame of past failures and the fear of future ones. It means not caring how you compare to others around you who are way ahead of you. It means taking things slow and being prepared for small relapses of bad behavior. It means reprogramming yourself, constructing new habits and abandoning old ones. If all that sounds a bit like something you’d find in a diet program like Weight Watchers or rehab groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s a good reason for that because those groups understand that change means creating a lifestyle that positively reinforces the building of new habits. Becoming a more persistent student and writes requires structure to support one’s will of wanting to change. It takes a great amount of self control not to take one of the myriad potential escape routes that college life offers.
Don’t assume that a lack of persistence is only a hindrance for the students who label themselves as poor writers. Almost all college students could stand to develop more of it. However, many of the students who come to college believing they are talented are motivated to change and adapt because they have had more positive experiences in meeting challenges in the past. They also have a much shorter distance to travel because many of them have had great teachers or parents who have helped them develop the skills needed to succeed. They just need to figure out how to transfer them, which can be a difficult struggle but one that is aided by past successes.
The non-intellectual traits that Richardson, Abraham, and Bond found to be linked to success at the college level also correlate to each other. I don’t want to reduce the value of their work by extrapolating theorems out of their results, but I am curious about how much a student’s belief in their own potential encourage them to set high standards and work hard to achieve them. If they feed off one another, that could be good news. We can’t make a huge impact on students by inspiring work harder because such inspiration has a hard time competing with the distractions that tempt them to put off work. We can and should set high standards, but that doesn’t get them to meet them. Inspiring a belief in their ability to improve does, however, seem plausible. On the other hand, there is a wide gap between communicating that they should see themselves as having more potential and actually getting them to believe it is so. I’ve worked with enough student’s to know that simply telling them that they can improve is not enough.
The students whom I see succeeding at becoming “good writers” after starting off as “bad writers” have a different kind of belief in themselves. These students develop an attitude that the only way they can fail is by giving up because they endure the barrage of contending beliefs that tell them they are too far behind, that they may be intellectually deficient, that they can’t improve and shouldn’t bother. They believe that even though they are behind, they can catch up if they focus on slow, steady progress.
Persistence is possible for these students because they are passionate in the older sense of the word. Passion to us now describes how much one loves or cares about someone or something else, but at its root is the word patī, which is the Latin verb for suffering. Those who passionately pursue a goal suffer setbacks along the way, but the setbacks and refusing to yield to them define their struggle.
(Regarding persistence, I want to acknowledge and thank scholars Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth whose work contains valuable messages about persistence. The main thrust of Dweck’s research is that a person’s mindset determines their approach to challenges. Those who view their intelligence as malleable view challenges as opportunities and embrace them while those who view their intelligence as a fixed trait shy away from challenges that might show everyone the limits of their abilities. Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is a great introduction to her work. Duckworth’s research is summarized and reference frequently in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (which I reviewed for Rain Taxi here). Duckworth explores the value of grit, which for her means pursuing a goal with passion. Grit drives a person to navigate around obstacles to reach their goals.)