An interesting message for students?

Registration for our first year students began this week, and with it,  my interest in enrolling students in the First Year Seminar I teach who really want to be there.  For an FSEM to reach its potential to be more than just another freshman class, the students need to buy in to the premise that the purpose of the course is neither grades nor credits but to introduce new students to the best that education can be: real school.

This challenge has become noticeably more difficult since the FSEM became a requirement, rather than an opportunity.   We need to find a way around this difficulty.  The last time I taught an FSEM, the first day of class as we were introducing ourselves, one student announced:

I want to tell you that I have no interest at all in the topic of this course, that the only reason I’m taking it was that it was the last open FSEM when I registered.  I hope you won’t hold my honesty against me!

I’ve thought a lot about this student since that day nearly two years ago.  It was as if she was looking for an ‘excused absence’ from the engagement that I hope for in my students.   From conversation over the term I inferred that she would be happy earning a minimal passing grade, as long as I didn’t expect her to buy into the course in the way I clearly did.  On the one hand, I appreciate her honesty since I am sure that from time to time there are other students who choose to stay unengaged, but do so as unobtrusively as possible.  But on the other hand, what am I supposed to do with a student who doesn’t want to be there, who really isn’t willing to ‘take’ the course in more than a superficial way, not the way it was intended.  More generally, what should a teacher do with a student who has no interest in a course, but must take it to satisfy a requirement?

Enter Gardner’s intriguing post of the other day.  Gardner posits that

[T]he strategic foundation for learning is interest, a particular kind of intrinsic motivation that manifests as openness to new ideas, a willingness to be in conversation, a genuine reaching-out to the unfamiliar and sometimes even the daunting or repellent. A penchant for wanting to know. A habit of inquiry.

Gardner references Paul Silvia’s work on interest.  For me, the money quote from Gardner’s post is

[I]nterest is far from simple, … acquiring the ability to make something interesting to oneself is one of the highest metacognitive capacities we can develop.

What I infer is that the common view of interest as something that either happens to you or not is not accurate, that interest is something that can be fanned like a spark into a flame, and that it’s even possibly to enhance one’s own interest in a topic.

If this is true, then it rules out any ‘excused absence’ for students who lack an interest in the topic of a course; Rather, it demands that they develop an interest.  It also suggests that learning how to fan the flame is an important tool for teachers to master.   I look forward to Gardner’s fleshing out of this notion, preferably with practical suggestions!  No pressure, Gardo. 😉

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One Response to An interesting message for students?

  1. Bill Goffe says:

    I recently finished “The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another” by Rebecca D. Cox. In it, she interviews a number of first generation college students who are mostly attending junior colleges. She claims that many students, at the start of a course, determine if the course will be useful to them or not (and on very narrow grounds). If not, they just try to “get it over” and then do the minimum to do so. Of course, it is an empirical question on how common this is, but it certainly seems consistent with many student behaviors I’ve observed (and really just articulates something that I’ve felt).

    More broadly, it does seem difficult to generate interest.

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