I overhear a similar conversation among students hundreds of times a year …
Students will say “I have a lab report due for chemistry class” or “I’m working on an outline for Public Speaking.” They might mention the instructor who assigned the work, saying “I have to do a rough draft for Dr. Hayward” or “I need to finish reading that chapter for Professor Ingram.” At an even broader level, students will say “I have to take this class for Area C in General Education” or “This class is for my Major elective requirement.” This mentality is prevalent and subtly destructive.
I do my best to listen and let these conversations play out without interference. I want students to talk to each other honestly, even as I think of how I might try to tweak their mind about it later. I call these “Mind Benders” – topics that are fairly common but, when seen from a different perspective, or with new information, have the ability to shift one’s thinking on a broader level quickly and profoundly. In this case, students have assignments, tests, papers, etc. and they tend to talk about them quite a bit (especially when the due date or exam date gets close).
So what’s the Mind Bender here? It’s pretty simple: Who and what is college for? When students are engaged in conversations about what they are doing and what it’s for (the class) or who it’s for (the teacher), they are completely missing the entire point of education. All of the papers, tests, labs, speeches, etc. are for them – the student! This is the Mind Bender because very few students I’ve come across in 15 years of teaching have internalized the process of education as development of themselves and their skills. Deep down they may understand, but on their reactionary surface, their conscious or unconscious mentality toward education is associated with some form of other rather than the self.
After listening to their conversations, I try to find an appropriate time to share this little nugget with them: that college is ultimately for them and that each one of the assignments they are talking about is for them and their development. This usually comes with some hesitancy and disbelief: while some students start to accept the fact that college is for their development, other students still find it easier to dissociate themselves from what they have to do and deflect responsibility onto something else. This mindset is fascinating to me and the intrigue increases further when grades come out.
The mentality that the intricacies of college are for someone or something else other than the student I believe is further reinforced by grades. If the Mind doesn’t Bend from the initial way of thinking described at the beginning of this post, students attribute failure, and worse, success, to the class and the teacher. A student who struggles might say “That class was stupid. I don’t even know why I had to take it” or “Dr. Hayward is so unprepared and unorganized. I could never understand why we were going from topic to topic. It felt all over the place.” Perhaps these are fair comments, but they’re focused on the other. Again, the responsibility falls on some external source. What I think is potentially more troubling is even when students succeed, they attribute success to the class or the teacher. “Professor Ingram is so cool” or “That class was fun to go to every week.” The focus continues to remain on the other.
Why is deflecting success potentially worse in my opinion? The student mentality is at the core of it all and, at its worst, has a tendency to rob students of feeling successful, building confidence, taking ownership and credit for their development. The same can be said for their failures too, but what sucks the joy, happiness, and fulfillment out of education is students who don’t give themselves credit for what they do well because they already have an engrained mentality that what they are doing is for something outside themselves. This mentality creates a relatively low emotional ceiling where school becomes mundane, repetitive, and uninteresting rather than exciting, uplifting, and a source of hope and inspiration.
So instead of the rough draft being for Dr. Hayward. The rough draft is for them!
The reading assignment isn’t for Professor Ingram. The reading assignment is for them!
That class isn’t for Area C of General Education. That class is for them!
My hope is that shifting their mentality in this direction creates more investment which includes a more enjoyable emotional journey because, ultimately, they stop working for everybody else and start working for themselves.
Foundations of Success Lecturer
California State University, East Bay