|Over the years, I've watched them collapse, falling hard into the vinyl
seats of the faculty lounge, heard them grunt the "Oh, hell" and "damn"
that came from the experience of working with students who wouldn't
learn. I've listened to the long sighs of frustration and then the
discussion of the "fact" that students are largely "unmotivated,"
unwilling slugs taking up my time and best performances.
And though I, too, have fallen into this occasional "locker room talk"
about students, I find myself now regretting my ignorance. Over the
past few years, I have tried to take time to get to know my students,
to talk honestly with them about who they are and what they want from
me, the institutions where I have encountered them, and their education.
They have taught me a great deal. I no longer believe that their
motivation is the real issue regarding the ways many of them perform
or fail to perform in my classroom.
Students have made it clear to me that they embody many sources of
frustration regarding the learning process before I ever encounter them,
frustrations that are difficult to set aside for 50 or 60 minutes at a
time. And they carry in many problematic attitudes about the nature of
learning. They come from diverse backgrounds. Some arrive immediately
after graduation from high school, but many others come to me after
years of involvement in the work force.
In general, today's students are likely to be older than the
stereotypical 18- or 19-year-old. They are likely to be apprehensive
about traditional classrooms -- paper and pencil work and "book
learning" -- and they are likely to perceive themselves as being
outsiders when they consider the teacher's world -- my world. They
are often uncomfortable with formality. They are often lacking study
skills. And they are often struggling to work jobs, raise families,
deal with financial responsibilities and limited funds, all while
trying to better themselves by going to college.
If all that isn't enough, coming to college challenges their social
identity and shakes their confidence. Many of them come from worlds
different from mine and have been shaped by experiences far different
from what they face in college. When I think about all that is going
on with them socially, psychologically, and economically, it is no
surprise that many students do not see my classes as the pivotal point
of their existence.
Even knowing all the problems they carry with them, I always wanted to
believe that my classes should be something they cherished and to
which they would give themselves over. I wanted the best from students.
If I could have had my way, they would have come to me as active
learners, seeking assistance and insight at every opportunity. They
would have thrived on academic challenge, and they would have challenged
me to teach better than I have ever taught before. They would have
questioned every aspect of their education and sought an understanding
of the "how's" and "why's" of the factors that touch their curious
Oh, what a wonderful experience that would be ... buy, let's face it,
that's not what most students do. What a disappointment! How easy it
is to blame them! And how easy it is to get frustrated ... and how easy
it is to fall into the belief that they are passive, uninvolved,
apolitical airheads. How easy it is to assert that they shun responsibility,
that they never question anything that relieves them of responsibility,
and that they often drag other students down with them by using their
social networks in the classroom to undermine the value of the lessons
being presented to the potentially "good" students. How foolish I was
to think I would not have to teach them how to
The fact is -- as I had to learn the hard way -- classrooms don't have
to be deadly, and students who seem unmotivated don't have to remain
in the unmotivated stage for very long. Making a change required a
great deal of soul-searching and rethinking on my part. And, most
difficult to accept, it required that I accept some of the blame for
what I -- as a representative of the teaching profession -- have been
given in my students' responses to me.
I've learned that many of them don't know that they have the right to
ask for anything other than what they are given. For the most part,
they are the products of years of experience in schools where they were
essentially told to sit down, shut up, listen, and learn - an experience
that taught them that the teacher is the source of all knowledge and
that learning is something magically injected into them at some point
without their awareness. They rejected that voodoo education then,
and, I've learned, they will reject it again if I push it, even though
they struggle with the internal desire to "make it this time" in college.
Contrary to the occasional lounge talk I've heard and been part of,
students are in college spending their time and money because they
want to learn and because they want a better life
for themselves. Granted, they often don't know how to acquire
what they want or how to make themselves learn what is presented to
them. But, when asked for their opinions (often a new experience for
many of them), they express that there are instructional areas that
they have strong opinions about.
- One of the most prominent comments from students regarding what
they want from the college experience involves individualized
instruction. They all want to have their individual needs met. They
want to feel like they are more than part of a crowd, that their
individual talents and abilities are respected and deemed worthy.
- They want teachers who are real people, who recognize
them as human beings -- teachers who care about them -- not just their
- They want to be challenged, not decimated.
- They want caretakers who check on them regularly, who support their
individual learning, who inform them individually of their progress,
and who assign a variety of tasks that give them the opportunity to
learn in modes that fit their individual styles and that are designed
to meet their level of learning.
- They like teachers who talk at their level, who can joke and take
a joke, and who let them talk and learn with other students.
- They like clear, complete explanations and concrete examples,
thorough (but brief) explanations of difficult concepts, and opportunities
to have their questions answered.
When I think about what students want, I know that classes that deliver
the same old message of "sit down, shut up, and listen so that you
can memorize facts to dump onto a test sheet" probably are not going
to motivate them. It seems clear that students are not necessarily
unmotivated or unwilling learners; they are simply uninvolved in the
depersonalization of the traditional classroom. They are
willing to learn; they simply may not be able to endure the way they
are taught. I now know that if I really want to see motivation in my
students, I have to be motivated to rethink what it is I am doing to