Building Academic Tenacity – Part 3

By Renee Wright

This semester has been a challenge for me. Typically, students are engaged, curious, and have the desire to learn. However, this semester, I’ve experienced a class like no other in my recent memory. I never assume the classes or students will be the same as past experience. However, one of the classes had such negative energy, that was troubling to me and I did not know how to deal with the discontent. Something similar happened early last semester, but I was able to turn that class around and the semester ended well. You may be thinking, what does my experience have to do with the third psychological intervention of creating tenacious students? They did not see how the curriculum was relevant to their own lives.

The third psychological intervention category, helping students see how the curriculum is relevant to their own lives, really goes beyond content or disciplinary instructional content, it’s about helping students see how the content and learning can change their lives. Previously, I discussed how I use mindset interventions in class to help students understand the value of being tenacious. The second intervention, creating an environment where they believe they belong in college and can be successful.

To review, specific psychological interventions help create tenacious students, those who believe they belong in school academically and socially; that school is relevant to their future; they seek out challenges and value effort as a learning experience; and they view setbacks as an opportunity for learning; finally, they aren’t derailed by difficulty.

According to Carol Dweck, Gregory Walton, and Geoffrey Cohen, this third category of interventions “dovetail with our earlier discussion of how a sense of purpose fuels tenacity” (19). In one study, students were asked to write a brief essay describing how the material they were studying (science) applied to their lives. The intervention groups expressed more interest in science and earned higher grades than students in the control group. The intervention was designed to help students see the relevance of science in their lives but the higher grades were the result of students’ beliefs that the content was relevant to their lives. Another intervention is this category is to increase students’ sense of purpose by targeting their beliefs about their “future self” and how to become that self (20).

Using both these ideas, students explored how writing and reading critically improves academic success, the misconceptions students have about their writing abilities as seen by employers. We also discussed self-regulatory habits that students could use to stay on the course expectations and not become overwhelmed by those expectations, keep your eye on the prize, so to speak. The content we covered this semester was designed to “integrate motivational ingredients” (21) so students would stay engaged. Feedback was a large motivational factor in what I covered in class. I provided detailed/specific feedback, both written and orally, to help foster that sense of relevance.

During the semester, students completed in-class assignments but had more trouble completing assignments outside class. They were aware that the out-of-class assignments were used for discussion the next day. As I start each class with a question about the previous assignments or ask students to complete a 3-2-1 about the assigned reading, it became painfully obvious that the most weren’t doing any of the assignments outside class.

Everything erupted to the surface a few weeks ago, right before a major assignment was due. I was informed they weren’t reading the book; they weren’t watching the PowerPoint lecture presentations I made; they weren’t using the exemplar essay examples I provided; they weren’t reading my feedback on assignments; and they really didn’t understand the structure of the assignments outlined in the textbook, so they weren’t going to read the book. I listened, almost in disbelief, as they boldly said, without remorse, that they didn’t do any of the things I asked because they never had to do any of that in the past.

They believed what they did in high school was enough to get them through their college freshman composition class. In my class, the assignment asked them to write an analysis essay; they wrote an argument. They were asked to synthesis content from multiple sources, they wrote an argument. During peer review, they indicated the author of the paper completed the assignment as outlined, even though they could not provide examples of where this occurred.

I stopped using peer review and found they weren’t able to evaluate their own writing either after detailed in-class review. When evaluating their own writing, using the assignment rubric, they scored themselves very high; even though their paper didn’t have the elements outlined on the rubric. The rubric simply stated, does the essay have the specific criterion or not and why. They would say the essay did not have the criterion, but felt their explanation of why it was missing was sufficient to earn them a higher grade.

Students failed to see the relevance of the curriculum to their studies or their personal lives. I had become so comfortable with the third intervention technique, that I didn’t consider the student reaction to the information as presented. As I’ve struggled these last few weeks, looking for ways to change the methodology next time, I stumbled across two excellent articles that may help in the future. The first, “I’m Never Assigning an Essay Again” explains how the terminology we use can impact student output. The other, “Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay” explains the “deprogramming” that needs to occur in first year writing classrooms.

How have you meet the challenge of relevance in your classes?  Share your experiences below.


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