Sunday, April 21, 2013

Why street cred matters (Musings on motivating CLS students to prepare)

This blog is a revised version of a message I recently sent to CLSEDUC, a mailing list for clinical laboratory educators. 

One of the subscribers asked how people motivate students to prepare for class. Excellent suggestions were posted since many quality teachers subscribe to the list and generously share their expertise.

What follows are my musings on encouraging students to prepare for classes and complete assignments, a few simple tactics and strategies to consider.

Many CLS students are over-worked or may perceive themselves to be compared to students in programs without laboratories. Plus many work long hours at part-time jobs. And some have family responsibilities at home. 

So the prevailing perception, rightly or wrongly, is one of being overwhelmed at times and hard done by. This makes students sensitive to course workloads, especially anything that strikes them as 'make work.'

With this mindset, students must believe that whatever being asked of them is valuable. As noted, one way is to assign marks or other rewards and 'penalties', a carrot and stick approach. Another is to explain how an assignment will help them succeed.

To me a key to motivating students to prepare and succeed is instructor credibility, being a real person they can relate to.

Credibility is...

1. 'Been there, done that,' i.e., have worked in a clinical lab and know the realities of trench workers and what skills are truly needed to excel. This helps students listen and believe when you explain why something is significant, ideally with real-world anecdotes.

2. Admitting that you screwed up, when you do (and everyone does) and modelling how to accept responsibility and criticism as a normal part of professional practice.

3. Having empathy for students concerns, e.g., ask them about other assignments and course requirements before assigning work and, where possible, get THEM to agree by consensus with when a reasonable due date is. 

Short assignments also are appreciated. Stick to core learning objectives and scrap the 'nice to know' goodies. 

Unfortunately, many instructors, naturally consider their course to be important, if not most important. When assigning work they may not consider all the assignments students are faced with, including mark-related quizzes and exams in other courses. Such willful blindness can be a kiss of death to credibility. 

4. Setting high standards, especially at the beginning. There will be ample time later to be a 'soft touch'. Tell them you have high expectations for what they are capable of. That our brain is ~ 3% of body weight but uses ~20% of its energy and their brain will get a good workout in your course. 

5. Managing learning so students succeed early, as 'nothing succeeds like success.' Early success reinforces that they can all meet course standards. Moreover, when we do well, we tend to like a subject and retain motivation. 

6. Telling students that they, and they alone, are responsible for their performance and achievement. If they want to goof off, so be it. That's their choice. It's perfectly okay. They're adults and if they want to waste their time and money, go for it! 

7.  Having a sense of humor and showing students that you do not take yourself, or your pet discipline, too seriously. A career is but one part of life, a crucial part, but not the only part, perhaps not even the most important part. Self-deprecating humor helps but only if it rings absolutely true.

All of the above won't 'get' all students. Some have a high degree of achievement motivation and will succeed no matter what instructors do. These students aren't the target. 

The target includes those who

  • Are cynical (or pretend they are to avoid disappointment and pain)
  • May be overwhelmed and prefer to be spoon fed
  • Seek the easiest path to graduation and a job. 
But few, if any, young people are truly incorrigible. 

The first task is to motivate students to prepare for classes so that they can get the most from them. And a big part of that is instructor credibility.
And it's worth remembering that often the professionals who go on to stellar careers are not the ones who excelled as students, but rather struggled. 
One of the best things we can do is not turn them off our discipline and profession. If they love it, that's 99% of the struggle.
Food for thought. More education musings in next blog....