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It’s an awful feeling to be finishing school and not really know what you want to do with your life. It’s bad enough that you don’t really understand who you are at that age. That was part of my problem when I left school apart from more personal issues holding me back. I always wanted to have a career that I was passionate about but I just didn’t know what to do. Then circumstances turn out differently than you expect – I certainly didn’t envisage getting married at a young age. Then, in my early twenties, my health went pear-shaped and just trying to be as healthy as I could was my goal for several years. It was only after my second child was born that I realised what I wanted to do, what I HAD to do. There are two main reasons for this. First, the time you have to do anything for yourself is incredible limited once you have children, second, I could see that I’d become a wife and mother, but I felt I had lost ‘me’ somewhere along the way and I had to claim it back. So when I started studying at university I had a lot of enthusiasm for my studies and that hasn’t waned in my few years there.

So it comes as a disappointment when classes don’t foster my enjoyment of learning. Last semester, when learning Italian for the first time, I was frequently disappointed in my Italian classes not because of the language itself or the teaching of it but rather other students’ lack of effort and interest. It was about two-thirds of the class that displayed this lack of effort and it mainly involved our homework or lack thereof. Every class we’d start by going through the homework checking where we’d gone wrong. This was meant to be a fairly quick process but when nearly two-thirds of the class haven’t done the homework it means we all have to sit there waiting for each person to work out the answer in Italian . . . it’s all so painfully s…l…o…w.  This process would take nearly an hour which meant the new work we were learning that day was squashed into 50 minutes which means you go through it a little too quickly to get a confident grasp of it. Now I’m happy to report that about 60% of students dropped Italian for semester two (apparently 50% drop off rate is typical) and my new class is very small, only about eight students who are all keen to learn and generally we’ve done the homework for each class and so get plenty of time to go through the new work. It’s wonderful! Our teacher seems happier too. I can’t imagine how disheartening it would be to prepare classes and then teach it to unenthusiastic students.

The other type of disappointment in classes I’ve experienced involves a similar theme but this time with history tutorials. I’m talking about the tutorial class where no one wants to talk and contribute. The teacher asks a question and everyone remains silent. Why? Did the students not do the readings and so can’t answer the questions? Do the students have a pathological fear of speaking in public? Do the students just not care about learning something? Or is it that the students have done the readings but don’t fully grasp what the teacher is asking or are not feeling confident about their answer? Sometimes I fall into that last category – I’ve done the reading but don’t fully understand what’s being asked and therefore I’m not confident about saying any answer I have in my mind out loud. Now nerdy ole me would love to have a one-on-one discussion with the teacher myself but I know that’s not the point of the tutorial – the teacher is trying to get a class discussion going on that week’s readings, trying to get everyone to contribute and when it happens it’s great because I get to hear different perspectives and it broadens my thinking which is always a good thing. Sometimes when questions are being asked of the students I have to bite my tongue and not answer so the other students have a chance to contribute, but if it becomes obvious that they won’t talk much anyway then I won’t hold back so much. Again, I feel for the teachers. I feel awful when I arrive at a new tutorial and I realise it’s a dud class. It only gets worse when the teacher breaks that kind of class into small groups – the ones who don’t want to talk still sit there not talking and the one or two of you willing to do the work end up looking bossy and everyone feels even more uncomfortable. This happened to me this semester but luckily my timetable has allowed for me to switch to another tutorial class and it’s so much better!

Most students I find are willing to contribute something but they need encouragement and reassurance that even if they happen to give a wrong, ignorant or silly answer that they aren’t going to be made to feel wrong or stupid. I find though when the majority of the class are students who don’t want to talk or need a lot of encouragement to talk that there seems to be a pervading negative atmosphere that is discernible and discourages the students from talking even more. I don’t know if students realise how much of their own attitude contributes to the overall atmosphere of a class. Positivity can be infectious if there’s enough of it around, so maybe teachers should find the talkers first to get a change in atmosphere happening and then try to bring the others in. Sometimes I find I don’t necessarily have an answer to the questions the teacher is asking but if a general ‘what did you find interesting/challenging/insightful about the readings?’ (or certain passages) was asked then I would be more inclined to speak up.

Being an introvert and a former shy person I can understand the horror of having to speak in class but I can’t understand why many students don’t truly care about their studies – actually learning something not just trying to pass in order to get a qualification. I don’t think that the lack of contribution in class is purely down to shy people – there can’t be that many – especially in a world that’s dominated by extroverts who tend to think out loud. I believe the lack of contribution stems from a lack of enthusiasm for learning or an inability to see how it’s going to help the student, you know, the ‘what’s in it for me?’ kind of attitude. I think some students honestly don’t understand how their essay writing, weekly readings and contribution in class will help them in the future.

How can we improve attitudes towards learning today? Is it a community wide problem? Are students growing up in a society with too much of a focus on the outcome rather than a real appreciation for learning and a joy for learning? I believe there is an element of that and that maybe the students are just reflecting that back to the teachers. When I talk to people (not close family & friends) in general about my studies frequently they will make a comment back to me of ‘well you just want to pass don’t you’ which always surprises me. Now I feel confident enough to say ‘well, no actually, I don’t just want to pass’. I want to do really well – to learn how to write well and research well and try to become more articulate all of which are important attributes in any profession.  I don’t want to be mediocre, I actually want to be the best person I can be in all aspects of my life, whether I achieve that is another matter but the enthusiasm and effort is there. Why should anybody aim for mediocrity?

So far I’ve only talked of the students, what of the teachers – have my teachers ever been the cause of disappointment? No, they haven’t. Although I admit that sometimes I would have handled some situations differently if I was in their shoes. Overall, I’ve found the majority of my teachers to be very helpful and approachable and I can see that if students show they’re making an effort and are enthusiastic about their classes I see the teachers responding more positively to those students, but who wouldn’t in that position!

So what can teachers do to help foster a greater effort and enthusiasm within the students?  First and foremost actually show your own enjoyment of the topics being discussed in class. If you seem bored with it or if it looks like you’re just going through the motions the students will see you don’t care and then neither will they. Second, don’t use many powerpoint slides. Why bother listening to the lecture when you can just print off the slides and read them at your leisure. I’ve been shocked, in lectures where too many powerpoint slides are used, to see how many students are sitting there typing away on their laptops only to realise they’re not typing up lecture notes but are communicating with others on facebook or looking up clips to watch on YouTube or whatever else takes their fancy. It’s easy to get away with it too when most lecturers just stand behind the lectern or in one spot, there’s no chance of being discovered! Powerpoint is better left for pictures and diagrams and maybe a few of important facts to help with students’ own research but I don’t think summary slides are necessary – that’s what the students are meant to be doing, aren’t they? Why spoon feed them? Let them learn to be responsible – just tell them ‘how it is’ at the beginning of the semester, outline clearly what is expected of them and then the rest is up to them.  Then allow your enthusiastic nerdy self to fly each class and the students will love you for it, for being authentic.

But enough of my opinion, it’s time to enlighten me – what disappoints you in class as a teacher or as a student? Teachers – what strategies have you employed to encourage more effort and enthusiasm in your students? How do you feel about the students who don’t make much effort and the ones who put a lot of effort in?