Motivation and Meaningful Learning

by Ted Bolak

In planning my sole literature course last semester, American Literature Before the Civil War, I thought I’d cover the usual topics and literary suspects. That was, of course, until I began class with one of the highest-achieving students I’ve taught at OCC.

I met him in ENG 1520 two years ago. He would regularly spend several hours on each draft, then approach me with nervousness for a “quick look” at his writing. Never was anything “quick” about these “looks.” Despite much fretting, though, he completed the course and performed well, which was no surprise to me. When I saw this same student was enrolled in my American Literature course, I was pleased.

In a fantasy world, all professors know more about everything than their students.  In the real world, we must acknowledge that we don’t. This admission applies to content (although this is infrequently really the case) and life circumstances (which is more probable).

In my real world last semester, my stellar student knew his scripture backward, forward, and with his eyes closed (which is probably best because one descends deepest into prayer with closed eyes). I do not exaggerate saying he knew more about the bible than anyone I’ve met excluding clergy. As a proud religious mongrel myself (descending from one Jewish and one Catholic parent), I’ve always connected to more sweeping spiritual overtures than the details of “begats.” Finally, the time had come to pay more attention to the specifics of covenant theology and the Pharisees.

Anyone familiar with early American literature knows biblical references seemingly seep out of each line. Of course, the Early American period has no monopoly on scriptural references in literature…and what is the bible, but poetry? Digressions aside, we dove deeper into religion and literature than I ever have before.

In addition to taking on deeper analysis of religion in this particular class, I was able to confront another issue: the perception that higher education is devoid of spiritual inquiry. Unfortunately, many people outside academics assume higher education is “anti-God” (in the words of a student I recently spoke with). Such perceptions are based on sweeping generalizations that academics have no spiritual concerns and that we actively promote atheist agendas. Such assumptions are made credulously. Just my own experience with faculty at OCC proves many of my colleagues are active in some congregation. Additionally, there is great diversity among faculty regarding which religion or spiritual traditions they practice.

These complexities are often overlooked in our contemporary culture and in our historical understanding of our own country. In a time of “nation building,” abolitionists were ostensibly concerned that slavery was a sin in its truest sense. As William Lloyd Garrison proclaims in his preface to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, supporters of slavery are “the foe of God and man.” Far from turning away from profound questions of faith and ethics, classes in the languages, arts, and humanities often face them head-on.

If one were to survey my students from this course, I doubt they would have noticed any difference in course delivery, but I purposefully challenged myself. This personal challenge came at a price. While I could have been getting ahead grading many sections of composition, I spent my time studying to ensure I sufficiently fulfilled my role as a facilitator.

I am tempted to boil this reflection down into a message that would help teachers inspire students or revitalize a crusty old lesson plan. My hesitation, however, is that doing so does a disservice to teachers and their students. Such a message, in this context, would suggest that teachers are always responsible for what their students learn.

The truth is, however, that meaningful learning must arise organically. If we are not intrinsically motivated to learn – nor willing to spend our time reading and thinking – there will be no greater reward from our studies. Such truth applies to instructors and students.

The general public likes a dramatic story about an inspiring teacher. To be sure, they exist. Dedicated teachers are reliable guides who care deeply about their craft, but I’ve never heard of a success story in which a student truly didn’t desire knowledge in some way.

This past semester, that fact was cemented for me. Just one student with a will to learn changed the composure of a class. Such students are critical role models for their peers, even if some onlookers lack the maturity to tackle course content with equal vigor.

In an era when teachers are increasingly “accountable” for “student learning,” those pushing “accountability” would be wise to consider each student’s personal sense of “accountability.” That is to say, how hard is a student willing to work? What sacrifices are worth making for the sake of developing as an individual and scholar?

These questions should not be answered by teachers, and they should not be ignored by whomever is trying to measure “growth.” Rather, anyone working in education should stand firm in the belief that student performance is greatly determined by effort. Classroom teachers can make copious changes to instructional style and content; however, we are lured into a mirage if we fail to enable students to learn on their own.

Encouraging students to be self-motivated doesn’t mean we let them fail without providing assistance, but it does mean we expect them to take ownership for much of their own academic and personal success. If students and teachers meet each other under such circumstances, a true learning environment takes form.





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