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Pedagogy for unmotivated students

December 26, 2010

I remember in my introduction to management class learning about Theory X and Theory Y.

Theory X

According to Theory X, employees (or, say, students) are lazy. They will avoid work whenever they can, and as a result, the supervisor (or teacher) must be punitive and strict in their managerial (read: pedagogical) style.

As I look to many of my classmates, I think: of course, this is true! How lamentably so, but true nevertheless.

According to Theory Y, however, employees (or, say, students) are creative. They want to develop their talents and they enjoy doing so. However, in many environments, their talents are stifled or underutilized. To counteract this, the supervisor (or teacher) must establish empowering conditions and must be trusting and optimistic in their managerial (read: pedagogical) style.

As I look to many of my classmates, I think, of course; this is true! How brilliantly so, and true nevertheless.

Ah, by proving contraries, truth is made manifest.

I don’t think it is ultimately all that surprising that in varying contexts or with different people, two very different paradigms can be true. I think the question for teachers is: how do you work around this?

Over at an accounting professor’s blog was a post about experimenting with a final exam format. Most of you probably aren’t accountants or professors, but I still think the question was interesting:

What is the purpose of a final exam? I can think of two reasons. First, it gives the students one last opportunity to influence their grades. There is something about having hope for improvement that keeps students working until the end. Second, the final exam forces the students to review the material and, hopefully, get it better set in their understanding. In other words, they learn more.

I like giving my students an opportunity to improve their grades but my main reason for believing in final exams is that I really want them to leave the semester with all of the knowledge fresh in their minds. The final exam should encourage them to tie all of the material from the semester into a cohesive whole.

Unfortunately, I have often been disappointed in the results of final exams. Students seem overwhelmed by the huge amount of material and flit back and forth during their studies over the various topics without really getting a strong grip on any of it. They just don’t always learn as much as I want from their preparation.

Professor Hoyle had a hypothesis about how he could encourage effective finals studying. I commented that while his approach was a good start, it could be improved.

There was something about Professor Hoyle’s response back that took me a bit by surprise…

…I gave the test to the students ten days ahead and had multiple office hours during that period. I told the students that I would not work the questions for them but I would be glad to answer questions about how things should be done. Several students took good advantage of my availability and asked excellent questions. However, much to my surprise, many students did not. Not sure why not…

(emphasis added.)

While I believe in my original response — certainly, if a student doesn’t realize his points of weakness, he’s not going to know that he needs to go to the office hours to get help — I have to recognize the apathy, laziness, or dislike of many students toward certain material.

For whatever reason, accounting isn’t a well-liked subject matter. So, I would imagine that it has higher levels of students who have ill feelings toward it.

How are you supposed to engage these students? How can you help someone who doesn’t want to help himself?

I’m not immune to this. For the most part, I find a way to like something in all of my classes. I definitely feel to be VERY different from most students in this aspect. I don’t shun epithets like “nerd” or “geek” or whatever because I recognize that in this aspect, I am very different.

(Interestingly enough, I find myself being different from another kind of student. I know some people who have 4.0s, and do some really cool stuff. I don’t think I’m that high of an achiever, even though I have a pretty good GPA. I care more about the learning than the grade.)

But notwithstanding that, there are some parts of some classes for which I am just not motivated. For example, I feel REALLY bad for my Tax Strategy professor, because I was a terrible student in that class. I loved the theory behind a lot of the tax consulting strategies we learned, but we had a textbook that was focused on mathematical equations (“How much would an acquiring company have to offer in a 338(h)(10) taxable stock sale for the target company to be indifferent between that and a straight asset sale?” Die in a fire.) and as a non-mathematically-inclined person (!), I wasn’t really digging that, nor the proofs the book would bust out to illustrate concepts. I did the homework assignment the first few times, but it was demoralizing to spend a few hours on the problems thinking I understood them to then find out in-class that I had made a dumb (to everyone else) mistake.

And then I stopped caring about the homework in that class. I just stopped doing it.

I’d do every assignment from a theoretical standpoint (this should be worth more than that because of x, y, and z) but when it came to putting the direct numbers to it, or optimizing the numbers, I just didn’t care.

The worst thing about it is this isn’t even difficult math. It’s basic algebra in an iterative process. But if you confuse or forget any part of the process, the error carries through the entire way through.

…Anyway, I don’t know how you’d reach a student like me in that situation. Even though I knew my weakness, I wasn’t about to go to the professor’s office hours or spend MORE hours frustrating myself with the homework.


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