Consider a student in an introductory math class — let’s call him Alex. Alex had some unpleasant experiences with math in high school. When he got to college, he tested into a math course below the level that would count toward his general-education requirements. He is thus feeling wary about the semester, and resents having to “waste” expensive college credit on a course that he is unlikely to enjoy and that won’t get him any closer to his degree.
To have any hope of learning the material, Alex needs to actually involve himself in the course. He needs to direct his attention to the lecture and the problem sets. He must be willing to use his working memory to attempt solutions rather than daydream about his life outside the small windowless room full of equations. He needs to decide the information is important enough to commit to memory and then be motivated to grapple with it later, on his own time, to prepare for the exams.
Alex can do all of that — but he could use your help. As his instructor, you can stimulate his curiosity with an inspiring and energizing presentation style, with activities and assignments that maximize his sense of control over the material, and with expertise that helps him reach just a bit beyond his current abilities.
The psychologist Todd Kashdan writes, “If you want people to be interested, committed, and willing to devote effort to learning, mastering, and using these skills for the long haul, then you can’t avoid the initial step of stimulating excitement.” In short, if you really want a student like Alex to learn and succeed, something needs to happen first: You need to engage him.
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