Carrots, Sticks, and Why You Shouldn’t Skip Class

Tea for Teaching podcast logoIf you’re an educator and not listening to the Tea for Teaching podcast, you’re missing out. It features weekly discussions with educators about innovative and effective teaching practices, and it’s produced by John Kane and Rebecca Mushtare from SUNY-Oswego. Sometime in the past year, they shifted focus just a bit to lean into conversations about inclusive teaching and equitable learning, and they’re currently doing a series of interviews with contributors to the new book Picture a Professor about advice for instructors who don’t fit traditional stereotypes of college professors.

Book cover for Picture a ProfessorOne of their recent interviews was with Erik Simmons, a postdoc at Boston College School of Social Work and one of those Picture a Professor contributors. The interview was wide-ranging, but I was struck by the advice he gives his students based on the social and behavioral research that informs his own research. He shares some success strategies that would be of interest to students, teachers of students, and parents of students.

For instance, Simmons notes that “social commitment tools” can be very effective in helping students reach their goals. Put simply, these tools involve making commitments to other people instead of just to oneself. If, say, you announce on Twitter that you’re starting an email newsletter later this week, that’s a pretty surefire way to make sure you get that newsletter finished this week! (He says from recent personal experience.) For a student, that might mean agreeing to meet up with a couple of classmates Thursday night to review each other’s essay drafts, in advance of a Monday deadline. Sure, you could tell yourself that you’ll draft that essay before the weekend so you’ll have time to review and revise it before the deadline, but scheduling that meet-up is going to ensure you’ll get the draft done.

Simmons notes in the Tea for Teaching interview that it matters who is the recipient of your social commitment. “Making the commitment to [your instructor], making the commitment to the person you’ve just met, might not actually be the best way to go about it,” he says. (Thanks to Tea for Teaching for the handy transcript!) “But saying, hey, for your first assignment, why don’t you go make the social commitment to your best friend, close family member, your partner, and then trying your best to stick to that, is really important.” To that end, I can imagine it might be useful for a first-year student to commit to writing that paper draft to their new roommate instead of a classmate. You’re presumably stuck with that roommate for a while, which might motivate you just a bit more to keep that commitment.

Erik Simmons provides another bit of advice in that interview that feels a little counter-intuitive to me. He says that having big goals is useful when you’re starting a new path, so you know what direction to go, but when you’re in the middle of traveling that path, looking ahead to what you want at the end isn’t always that helpful for keeping you moving. Simmons suggests “visualizing what it looks like if we don’t do the day-to-day activity to reach our goal” as more powerful than visualizing success. If I don’t do the ungraded homework my professor assigned for tomorrow, what negative impact might that have? Maybe I’ll end up incorrectly believing I know the material introduced in the last class session, without really testing myself to know for sure. Or maybe we’ll talk about that homework during class tomorrow, and if I don’t do it, I’ll be lost.

Personal story: Back in college I took a differential equations class that was unbelievably boring. It was one of these courses where the professor worked through math equations using overhead transparencies he had written out decades before. My roommate’s class let out just down the hall right before my class every day, and one time I let my roommate talk me into skipping class to play pool with him… three days in a row. When I reached that spot in the hallway on the fourth day, I saw two of my fellow differential equation students furiously studying for something. It turns out, the professor had announced an exam on that first day I skipped to play pool, and since I hadn’t been there since that day, I ended up taking what was for me, a pop test, not just a pop quiz. That day was more stressful for me than it needed to be.

Homecooked Thanksgiving dinner
I find cooking for others far more motivational than cooking for myself.

Later in the Tea for Teaching interview, Simmons uses a carrot-and-stick metaphor to circle back to the big-picture role of motivation for students. How do you get a horse-drawn carriage to move forward? You can dangle a carrot in front of the horse to get him to move, or you could whack the horse with a stick. I don’t know which of those methods works better in the equine world, but for humans, Simmons says, “The stick is just always more readily available, it’s the easiest to get to, but the carrot is easily the best. If you can find it, it’s a lot more powerful than going to that stick.” While thinking about the stick (what might go wrong) might help you in your day-to-day motivation needs, at a larger level, it’s important to have a good carrot.

For some students, that means having a clear purpose for why they’re in college, why they’re in a particular program of study, and even why they’re taking a specific course. I wrote about purpose in this week’s Intentional Teaching newsletter. After describing an open-ended assignment offered by Elizabeth Meadows, principal senior lecturer in English at Vanderbilt University, for her course on dystopian fiction, I write:

In his classic book What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain argues that our courses need motivating questions, whether they are questions we instructors bring to the course or questions the students bring to the course. Meadows designed an assignment that allowed students to see the value of the questions she was posing about dystopias and to connect them to their personal and professional interests. That is, she designed an assignment that helped students find purpose in the work.

If we flip this concept around and consider it as a student, my advice is to find your purpose in taking whatever course you’re in. What connections can you find between your personal or professional interests and the course topics? What questions do you have about how the world works and your place in it can you bring to the course and its readings, discussions, and assignments? Years ago, I had a student in my first-year writing seminar on cryptography (codes and codebreaking) who was fascinated by Russian culture. I found out she was concurrently taking a Russian history course and a Russian language course. When I asked the students in my course to pick a code or cipher from history to explore in a research essay, she picked a Russian cipher used during the Cold War. She found a connection between my course topic and her own personal interests, and her essay was all the more interesting because of that connection.

I know that students who find their “carrot” can get a lot more out of a college class. I’m less certain of Erik Simmons’ other advice around social commitments and visualizing negative consequences for day-to-day motivation. I’d love to hear from you about these motivational tools. Have you found they work for you?

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