Sunday, May 5, 2019

Understanding Apathy

I encountered an exciting challenge the last 3 Aprils.  The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon is at the end of each April, and OCU sponsored a relay team each of the last 3 years.  I joyfully volunteered to participate with coworkers for such a meaningful event for our community.  My excitement came with some trepidation.  I played sports as a kid, but I never participated in running events.  Running was the necessary evil to playing anything.  To my surprise, I embraced the challenged and enjoyed the races.  I noted last year in a post the purpose for running helps motivate, but I also enjoyed the alleged health benefits. 

This year's experience helped me understand my upper level students more.  My first year, I worried I wouldn't make it the full 5k.  I imagined getting past the halfway point and collapsing from a combination of exhaustion and cramps.  The fear propelled me to train consistently for 8 straight weeks.  I ran my first 5k in 29 minutes, which was faster than I could imagine.  Adrenaline and training led to my best performance.  Last year, the team moved me to the 10k leg.  Again, I thought I would fall apart after 5k.  I trained hard, and in training, my body hurt after 5k each time.  I couldn't run/jog/speed walk the entire 10k.  Once again, I exceeded my expectations running the 10k in 1 hour and 5 minutes.  I started getting confident that I was a decent runner.

This year was much different.  The team needed me to run the 5k leg again.  I ran 5k reasonably well before and wasn't worried about it.  My training was terrible as a result of that confidence.  I trained more in the first month 2 years ago than I did all of 2019.  I planned the race day poorly.  I wasn't able to run/jog/speed walk the whole 5k.  I slow walked a couple times to catch my breath.  I thought I would collapse at the end from exhaustion.  My time ended up between 31 and 32 minutes.  Official results online (which my apple watch slightly disagrees with) indicate my pace was 9:30 per mile.  If I can do everything wrong and still run under 32 minutes, why train constantly for 8-10 weeks?  Is 3 minutes on race day worth hours of preparation that could be used relaxing, playing with kids, research, playing golf, or any other task?

Students make similar choices for classes in spite of all the advice we give them.  In my experience, first semester students tend to train like I did my first year.  Some of them go overboard, but many students feel like they put in significant effort.  Their effort may be misguided or lacked feedback, but their perception is they studied enough to succeed similar to previous educational experiences.  Half of all students are in the bottom half of the class, and that reality hits many students hard after grades.  Some of them respond by studying a little less the next semester.  As they enter 2L year, some will have jobs that cause them to study less.  Many students feel they learn more in their jobs, and their ultimate goal is to become a successful attorney.  Studying decreases again.  Unfortunately, the consequence of studying a little less isn't normally a large decrease in grades.  Bs turn into B minuses.  Grades don't appear much different, and time is spent on tasks that seem more important.  This experience is an over-generalization, but I see it happen to large groups of students every year, especially 2Ls and 3Ls whose job prospects don't hinge on grades.

My competitive nature does make me want to save 3 minutes, or even more, but I understand the logical choices students make.  Time is a finite resource.  Students feel pressure to get jobs and gain experience.  Student groups, simulation classes, and other extracurricular activities are more fun than completing a Secured Transactions practice question.  I experienced more fun coaching little league baseball than running, which is one of many excuses for training less.  ASPers task is to find ways to help students overcome studying apathy.

The first tip to help students overcome apathy is to know the students.  I can't give one approach to motivate every student.  Each student's motivation is different.  For me, appealing to my competitive nature would help.  Setting up a challenge to complete a certain number of practice questions by a particular date would help.  For other students, interaction with classmates working together may work.  Some students won't want to let a professor down, so the accountability of a weekly meeting will increase work.  The key is to know students individually to understand what will motivate them.

The second thing we need to do is emphasize the importance of class to change students' cost benefit analysis.  The problem with my analogy above is running has no impact on my everyday life (outside those alleged health benefits).  3 minutes has no real impact other than the joy of beating a personal best.  Different grades and understanding material does have a real impact on students' lives and ability to become a lawyer.  We should start messaging from the first day of orientation that studying and learning, whether grades follow, impacts whether someone will pass the bar exam.  Cassie Christopher's article correlating certain classes at Texas Tech with scores on the Texas bar is a good illustration for students that the C they received in Secured Trans may not impact where they work, but the lack of knowledge may be 5-10 points on the bar exam.  I follow up any discussion of points with anecdotes of students who didn't pass the exam by less than 5 points.  Telling students once won't be enough.  Constant messaging with the importance of classes even beyond the bar exam could improve motivation.

Lastly, individual work with students should start small.  Overwhelming students with massive changes can also skew the cost benefit analysis.  Meetings with small changes and feedback makes improvement seem manageable.  I won't go from running 0-1 time a week to 4 times a week.  I know it won't happen.  Students won't add in daily hypos if they aren't completing any now.  They need manageable changes.

Most of us do everything we can to encourage students to be more productive, but understanding their logical analysis can help us motivate them to change.  Seeing their cost benefit analysis is our first step to empathizing and helping students succeed.

(Steven Foster)

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