Monday, February 21, 2011

When a Failing Grade is the Only Motivation that Works

I've written about it before, but I've got carrots and I've got sticks. It is up to my students to figure out which one works best for their motivation in my class. Today, in my developmental writing class, we started the peer review process. They were supposed to have brought a full draft of their narrative essays to class; not even half did. The ones who did, after I spent 10 minutes trying to get them to discuss the purpose behind peer review (more feedback from  many people is always better, they need to learn how to do this on their own, and I am trying to get them to practice), half of the class that did bring their draft sat there doing nothing even as I said, "now exchange your papers and start giving and getting feedback!"

I acknowledged their lack of confidence; you're all in the same boat, and you are all here to help each other learn, I said. I provided questions that they should answer that provide guidance as to what they should be looking for in a "good" narrative essay (I tried to get them to come up with it, but after five minutes of dead air, I gave up). I basically provided every incentive and justification I could come up with (the carrots) to get them to take some initiative and take this process seriously. I'm not necessarily proud of this, but let me frustration with them show; the student who sat there for half the class not doing anything because no one either told him who to exchange his paper with or came up to him personally to ask him to make the switch sent me over the edge. Take some initiative and responsibility for your learning, I hollered. 

Today, I reached the limit of my mother-hen approach to teaching; some of my students expect Mamma to do it for them. While I am there for advice, guidance, and support, I am not there to mash their food for them and spoon it into their mouthes. I think that's an apt metaphor for the educational experience many of these students have had: pre-chewed, easy-to-digest education that is bland and tasteless, doing the bare minimum to nourish their minds (if that). When I think of it that way, I do have some sympathy for them. But at the same time, I've given them all the tools they need to do it themselves, and yet they still sit there passively waiting for...what, I don't know.

Thankfully, I am old-school insofar as I give grades. And, for many of these students, that is the only thing that will get their attention: a poor or failing grade. This is a last-chance situation for all of them because if they don't pass my developmental writing class this semester, they will be kicked out of school. They all have the potential to do well in my class, but they have to be willing to put the work in. A big E (we don't have F's) can force even the most apathetic student to grow up and at least attempt to fly on their own in a hurry.

My best students are the ones who had me last semester and didn't pass; they know that they need to be there, do the work, and take it seriously. Maybe I need to have them speak to the class without me in there. Because for the other kids in my class, the lesson will otherwise come a semester too late.


  1. I give my students a handout to accompany peer review. There are specific points for them to look at: a mechanics checklist, finding examples of parallelism and cohesiveness, and questions to demonstrate reading comprehension. This handout is a grade. It's the stick that motivates them, but it's also the scaffolding my (ESL) students need.

  2. I think tough love is a good strategy. When I first started teaching, I think I was a tad too sympathetic and it led me to do too much for the student. Then I had a few classes like the one you're describing, which changed my approach substantially. It's only fair to tell them that it's *their* choice whether to step up and do it, not the teacher's. And if they choose not to, well, I'd tell them that was exactly the sort of employee that got fired.

  3. I wonder what they will do when they leave your carrots and sticks behind? Which failing grade or lost job will scare them into towing the line? I agree with you that many of our students are lacking in the areas of initiative and self-motivation. I also believe the external motivator that is failing will not teach them a love of writing, learning, or even carrots. As you have already pointed out, the stick teaches compliance, and in many cases, it doesn't even do that. It is widely demonstrated that both carrots and sticks reduce the very intrinsic motivation you claim to seek. If you want a compliant class, stay the course; if you want them to truly care about their learning you will need to attempt the much more difficult, lasting, and fulfilling task of making them care. @bobneuf

  4. @Neuf:

    I wish I could teach something other than compliance at the moment, but these students are in a particularly vulnerable position; if they fail my course this semester, they will be kicked out of college. That's it. No second chances, at least not for a few years. The statistics are already against them when it comes to their chances of completing a college degree, but to ensure that they leave and almost certainly never come back?

    Then again, maybe that's what they need - to get out and see the "real world" without a college degree. Except, they grew up in that world and chose to come to college to try and escape it. Failing now only reinforces the narrative they've heard their whole lives that they weren't college material/too dumb/that college is a waste of time and money.

    If I have to fail them for an assignment at this point, I do so with a lot of discussion, comments, and support. They will have an opportunity to re-write and re-submit. It might look like compliance, but I see it as a wake-up call. They tell me they know writing is important; I need to make them really see and understand it.


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