Motivating Your Sullen Students

A piece published in this week’s Times Higher Education Supplement (here) discusses the challenge of facing jaded, sullen, or otherwise not particularly interested students. A number of themes are discussed in this collection of views by a number of educators in the UK. Anything from the materials that are taught, to external matters outside the control of that lecturer in that course, to our own attitudes (and even manner of dress, apparently) on the very first class.

A couple of things stand out: one is the idea that, if something can frustrate the student, it also has the potential to satisfy the student in some way. It may just be a manner of probing hard enough, asking questions like “what made you so frustrated with this particular material?”, and turning the answer into a teachable moment by unpacking the assumptions behind the frustration and connecting them to the ideas at stake.

Another stand out idea in those views (the reading of which I highly recommend) is that first impressions do matter. Not necessarily impressions of you (even if I do concede that such impressions may have an impact), but impressions of the course. One thing I do to set a conversational and engaged tone early on is to open each course I teach with a simple activity. In 20-30 minutes, students have to write on a piece of paper their answers to the following four questions (or a variation thereof):

–              What do you think is the purpose of [insert area of law]?

–              Who do you think is benefitted by [insert area of law]?

–              Are there any blind spots to what you consider to be the current approach to [insert area of law]?

–              (And, if it is an elective course) How did you get interested in [insert area of law]?

After having students do that, I collect their answers, and engage in a discussion where students have to tell me what they have answered. I respond to these views many times by just listening until there are a number of ideas on the table for each question, often opposing or complementary. I then draw the tensions between the many ideas. I like this exercise because (a) it sets a tone of conversation in the room early on; (b) shy students can engage early on, too, and break the ice, since they had the time to prepare their answers beforehand; and (c) it allows me to know early on where students are coming from, and what their expectations, interests and preconceptions are (and I can often adjust my teaching throughout the course around those expectations and interests).

Oftentimes, too, I repeat the exact same exercise in the class before last in the semester. And in the last class I return to students the sheet they prepared on the first class, and the one they prepared on the last class, so they can compare and contrast for themselves whether, and to what extent, their views on the subject may have changed.

Does this exercise help with sullenness? It’s not a magical cure, by any means, but it does help address some of the factors that are in my control, and help set the tone early on for engagement and conversation that caters to what students are interested in, as opposed to a curriculum I desperately need to get through.

By Lucas Lixinski

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