Succeeding in College: the Problem of Motivation (3)

May 22, 2012

The Hechinger Report this week has an interesting interview with Dan Chambliss, a professor at Hamilton College who, with Christopher Takacs of the University of Chicago has written a book entitled How College Works.

Chambliss and Takacs randomly selected 100 young people, all students at Hamilton, and followed them intensively for ten years, their years in college and beyond.  They conducted interviews, examined their college and high school papers, and so forth.  They were interested in discovering what made a difference in terms of how well they did. Their conclusion:

It’s all about people, not programs. Colleges spend a huge amount of time and effort worrying will they have writing-intensive programs or a freshman seminar program or if a major is set up right or if their curriculum is done this way or that—all the kind of stuff about the content and information for kids and students. That’s not where it’s at. The problem is not access to information. The problem is motivation. And student motivation goes up and down a lot. And the key to motivation is face-to-face contact with another human being. That’s what really works. And it doesn’t take that much of it to have a big impact on a student’s career.

That certainly squares with my experience.  “The problem is motivation:” I’ve written about that here and here.  And “the key to motivation is face-to-face contact with another human being.”  I’d add that this face-to-face contact has to be with someone whose respect you very much want to earn.  That’s why good teachers are a key to motivation.

Every year at Earlham, Ellen and I would invite seniors to dinner at our house in groups of about ten.  We’d invite them to reflect on their years at Earlham: what and who had mattered.  It was more informal conversation than structured research such as Chambliss and Takacs have conducted, but we learned the same things.  We’d ask students to name a person who had made a significant difference in their college experience and say a few sentences why.  Even though we invited them to think about parents, roommates, visiting speakers, members of the hourly staff (etc.), students nearly always named a member of the faculty.  And they told basically two kinds of stories.  The faculty member in question had shown care and concern when they were struggling, had encouraged and believed in them, and they learned from this they could succeed.  OR, the faculty member in question had been demanding, challenging them to do much better work just when they thought they were doing fine.  Really good teachers, I’ve come to think, have both of those modes, the supporting and the challenging, and know when to deploy each with different students and at different moments in students’ lives.

The scarcest resource in college, and the most valuable for learning, I argued recently, is motivation.  What good teaching provides is the context for students developing the motivation to succeed.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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2 Responses to Succeeding in College: the Problem of Motivation (3)

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