Why are our students in our classes?

This question has been nagging at me this week, as classes jump into full swing. I think the answer to this question plays an important part in how well our students will learn from us and also how they will evaluate you and the course at the end of the semester.

Sometimes on the first day of class, I have students answer some questions on an index card so I can learn a little bit about them. Last year, I asked them to tell me why they were taking my course. I got a range of answers, but most had something to do with preparation for the MCAT or graduate school or medical school or the next step in their career training. One or two claimed they were personally interested in the subject matter.

If a student is taking your course as preparation for an exam (or admittance to post-graduate training programs), they are motivated to do well in the class. In other words, they want to learn material with the aim of scoring well on an exam or getting a good grade for a transcript. Right? The type of motivation in turn influences how a student approaches learning the material.

If my motivation in learning something is to get a good score on a test, I look at the readings with an eye towards predicting what types of questions will ask for what types of content within the readings. I’d want to know what kind of exam questions will be used. I study differently for multiple-choice (where you’ll see the answer most likely, so I’d try to get good at recognizing terms in context) than for an essay question (where I’d focus on big picture ideas, relating ideas together, etc). If the assessments of learning (that lead to the good grade) involve my drawing sequences or flow charts, I would practice that in my studying, like drawing out a chemical reaction as opposed to explaining the use or significance of this type of chemical reaction. Our students do the same thing. That’s why they so often will ask what the exams will be like. That’s why they want to see practice questions or study guides or examples. I think that’s why they so often will ask, “Do we need to know this?” Or, “What level of detail do you expect from us?”

Sometimes we are baffled by these questions. We answer things like, “Well, I hope that you will be able to demonstrate your understanding, or your ability to integrate/synthesize the material.” No wonder sometimes our students metaphorically, and sometimes literally, roll their eyes with these answers!

I know that I do not think enough about the students’ motivations that underlie their learning styles and I’m certain they don’t think about this. But these motivations are powerful and can color their entire experience in your course. It might be worth thinking about ways to talk about motivations, study strategies and knowledge with your students.

For example, I am asking myself, “What do I want my students to learn in this course?” I always write out a clever list of class goals on my syllabuses that include things like:

  1. Understand the fundamental concepts in X
  2. Develop a sophisticated ability to critically read and interpret the literature in the field X
  3. Be able to integrate ideas across multiple levels of analysis

How will I know my students have achieved these goals? Well, through exams (fundamental concepts), written assignments (read/interpret/integrate) and discussions/presentations (integrate/express). My exams will have a mixture of content details and integrative, big picture questions. Because, for me as a teacher and as an expert in this field, it is important to know both the details and the big picture.

My motivations are not for my students to be able to do well on the MCAT or to get into medical/graduate school by getting a high score on my assignments. My motivations are to help my students work towards becoming expert in my field. I’d like them to learn well and deeply and, honestly, remember things well past the timeframe of the course. But, my students’ motivations suggest they would learn things for the tests and assignments and grades, not for personal growth or longtime knowledge. This means that my teaching motivations are not the same as my students’ learning motivations.

At the end of the semester, you might believe you have achieved your course goals. You will likely see evidence of learning and even mastery of the goals you set for the course. But, what about your students’ goals? Have they achieved what they wanted when they entered your class four months ago? Another question, equally important, did their motivations change to align more closely with yours? Or, did your motivations change to align more closely with theirs? Should these motivations align?

image from: http://psychtutor.weebly.com/motivation-and-education.html