It's the end of the term and I am inevitably dealing with students who after spending little to no time on their assignments during the semester are asking on the last day "What can I do to get at least a B?"
They are in constant contact with me during the past 48 hours questioning every point, every missing grade, and every evaluative decision I've made of their work thus far.
I wish they had been that engaged DURING the semester. And I've even told them so.
But when this happens, I always take a closer look at how I orchestrated this course and whether or not I had structured it in a way to encourage students to become deeper learners and not just strategic learners or surface learners. Here's the difference.
- Deeper Learners: respond well to the challenge of mastering a difficult and complex subject. These are intrinsically motivated students who are often a joy to teach!
- Strategic Learners: are motivated primarily by rewards. They react well to competition and the opportunity to best others. They often make good grades but won’t engage deeply with a subject unless there is a clear reward for doing so. They are sometimes called “bulimic learners,” learning as much as they need to do well on a test or exam and then promptly forgetting the material once the assessment is over.
- How to handle them: Handle strategic learners by avoiding appeals to competition. Appeal to their intrinsic interest in the subject at hand. Design your assignments (tests, papers, projects, etc.) so that deep engagement with the subject is necessary for success on the assignments. Do so by requiring students to apply, synthesize, or evaluate material instead of merely comprehending or memorizing material.
- Surface Learners: are often motivated by a desire to avoid failure. They typically avoid deep learning because it they see it as inherently risky behavior. They will often do what it takes to pass an exam or course, but they won’t choose to go beyond the minimum required for fear of failure.
- How to handle them: Handle surface learners by helping them gain confidence in their abilities to learn and perform. “Scaffold” course material and assignments by designing a series of activities or assignments that build on each other over time in complexity and challenge. Encourage these learners often and help them reflect on what they've learned and what they've accomplished.
Source: Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004, pages 40-41.
The students that often come out of the woodwork to somehow "pull it out" in the end or who show up in tears with every excuse under the sun as to why they weren't able to do the work are most often surface learners.
Of the 75 students I taught this term, eight (8) of them fell into this category. As I look at how I structured my courses I see that there are a couple of areas where I can do a better job scaffolding the assignments. As I look toward the next semester, I am engaged in deep learning to examine motivation theory and its impact on my learners.
I can control both the text and the context in which my students learn, but I can't control the "self" of each of them and how they choose to engage in the material. So my advice to all educators is to control that which you can control, and know you gave them your very best.
The rest, is up to them.