Do you have students who don’t deliver good work? Sometimes it’s a case of not having the necessary skills, but not always. Students with skills have been known to deliver papers that show promise but aren’t well organized, fail to explore interesting ideas deeply, haven’t been proofread, and ignore assignment requirements. Their test and quiz scores are inconsistent, and they’re attitudes seem pretty nonchalant. It’s challenging to know how to reach these students.
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]o you have students who don’t deliver good work? Sometimes it’s a case of not having the necessary skills, but not always. Students with skills have been known to deliver papers that show promise but aren’t well organized, fail to explore interesting ideas deeply, haven’t been proofread, and ignore assignment requirements. Their test and quiz scores are inconsistent, and they’re attitudes seem pretty nonchalant. It’s challenging to know how to reach these students.
Here’s some research that might help. It defines good academic work and then explores what motivates and challenges students’ pursuit of it. The two psychology professors start with other research that defines “good work” as it occurs in professional contexts; it’s technically superior (excellent), socially responsible (ethical), and personally meaningful (engaged). Then they propose how that description might apply in academic settings. Good academic work demonstrates “outstanding performance in one’s curricular activities (excellence), fulfilling one’s academic obligations the right way (ethics), and finding meaning and pleasure in one’s studies (engaged).” (p. 34) In earlier work (cited in the reference below) they found that faculty conceptions of good academic work were consistent with this definition but student definitions were not.
For example, students conflated effort and excellence. Their definitions of excellence included trying hard, working diligently, and doing their best. Excellence frequently does require sustained effort, but excellence is something else. It’s a thoughtful understanding of content and the subsequent ability to apply that knowledge. We’ve all had students who work hard, expending effort, but still don’t master the material. Their efforts are excellent, but good effort isn’t the same thing as academic excellence.
When students described ethical work, they tended to talk about admirable personal habits like staying home to study instead of going out to party or going to class instead of sleeping in. The idea of social responsibility, and that cheating, for example, puts personal goals above the welfare of others and jeopardizes the integrity of academic programs and institutions, was not how they understood the ethics involved in academic work.
Students defined engagement as participating in class and getting involved in extra-curricular activities. Here, as well, engagement in academic work involves much more than that. Students can participate to earn a few points and impress the professor and still not be engaged with the content. Often we see deeper levels of connection as students get into their majors but that kind of engagement is more difficult to cultivate in courses students don’t think they need to take. [perfectpullquote align="right" bordertop="false" size="20"] Do we need to talk more with students about the characteristics of good academic work?[/perfectpullquote]
The single factor that motivated good academic work in all three areas of the definition was personal goals such as the desire for high grades, understanding coursework better, earning a degree and securing a job. Ethical work was also motivated by internal principles, such as being competitive, curious, honest and moral. Interestingly, it was dedicated faculty and thought-provoking courses that students said motivated engagement.
The challenges that prevented good academic work involved personal habits, such as procrastination, lack of interests or goals, or not having strong academic skills. Students also reported that demanding and uninteresting course work challenged the quality of their work. Ethics were challenged by a willingness to cut corners and the negative influences of peers.
Do we need to talk more with students about the characteristics of good academic work? How would they define it? What would they say motivates them to provide it and challenges their efforts to produce it? Most students aspire to do good work, at least theoretically, but they often underestimate what’s involved in doing so. To imagine that a paper can be written and revised or a test prepared for in a night is not to understand the mental effort good work requires of most of us.
Everything that’s involved in doing good academic work is not an easy message to communicate. Student who think they are working hard don’t take kindly to being told that they need to work harder. How can we help them discover this on their own? I used to ask my students whom I knew could deliver better work if they’d ever taken one assignment or one exam and decided to do it as well as they possibly could? “Do you know what you can do? That might be kind of interesting to find out.” That worked for a few students, but not as many as I hoped. If you have ideas or ways to reach students who aren’t delivering and who perhaps don’t rightly define good academic work, please share them.
Reference: Duncan, M. K. and Johnson, J. A. (2019). Factors that motivate and challenge psychology majors’ pursuit of academic good work. Teaching of Psychology, 46 (1), 34-46.