A recent TED conversation (2023) with motivation researcher Ayelet Fischbach on overcoming procrastination got me thinking about the ebbs and flows of each semester and taking advantage of the key moments during the term to help with student success. This came to life for me during the pandemic when at times I felt like a voice crying from the chaos that we could get through it. What Fishbach (2022) found is what most of us already know instinctively but don’t always think about: that students’ motivation at the beginning and end of a class is high, but the dreaded middle—as she calls it, “the middle problem”—can be really hard for them. The middle of a semester can be hard on us professors as well as we juggle all the balls and divide our time between teaching research and service. I get excited about every new semester and meeting new students, and my motivation peaks near the end of the term as I focus on wrapping up my classes well, but that middle. It’s tough.
I teach in an online graduate library science program that delivers courses asynchronously. Even though I can’t see and hear visual, auditory, or posture clues like on ground professors see, I do sense how the class is doing in general by the questions I get or don’t get, by how the class discussions are going, and by comments students make when submitting their assignments. Over the years I’ve developed somewhat of a sixth sense about how the class is going by paying attention to the above. Since the pandemic I’ve also paid attention to what is going on around us in general. Is the news overwhelming and stressful? Is there a lot of illness going around, affecting my students and their families? If so, I try and be responsive and think about what my students need at that moment. Often, it’s just individual interaction, but in many cases during the pandemic I started talking to the whole class. I stopped posting prerecorded videos to the lass and instead created new ones each week—a practice I’ve kept up. This allows me to speak directly to what is happening in the course and in some cases the world around us. At first it felt awkward when I would offer these pep talks when things felt heavy, but inevitably I would get emails from my students, thanking me for the motivational talk and saying it was just what they needed. I got enough of those emails that I’ve kept up that practice.
So how do we help students—and ourselves—with motivation during a long semester? For my part, I try to take advantage of the highs to get the most out of them. The first high is at the beginning of the semester, when new students are excited and a little bit nervous, especially if they are new to online learning. I make it a point to engage quickly with them during this time, offering assistance when needed. I set expectations early to head off confusion later in the semester. If they need to improve their writing and citations, I spend the first few weeks giving extra feedback to show them how they can improve and why they should. I greet them all in the introductory discussion and try to connect with something that they shared in their initial post to find a common ground. All these small activities seem to get my classes going well.
Natural breaks in the middle of a course, such as fall or spring break, can serve as motivators. Fishbach (2022; TED, 2023) describes a study of people waiting in a long line for an amusement park ride. Shifting their attention from how far they have to go to how far they have come made a difference in their motivation. Using that same way of thinking, I mark the midpoint of the class and make a point to remind them that we’re already halfway through. In the fall, it’s counting the weeks to Thanksgiving. The summer is harder, but the Fourth of July is a good midpoint. In addition to helping students, it also motivates me when I realize that we only have half the semester left and I need to make sure I’m up to date on grading and feedback. I find that students often need individual help during this time. Perhaps they’ve been sick for a good part of the semester or are going through personal issues. Maybe they’ve gotten a little behind in assignments. My noticing and responding to their individual situations often gives them the motivation they need as they are stuck in the ugly middle.
Finishing well is another motivational high point. Near the end of the semester, the class seems to take on a new life. Everyone can see the finish line, and I make sure to point it out. As an act of self-preservation, I tend to start grading assignments faster, if only because I hate having to grade so much after the semester has ended and the deadline for posting grades is looming. For those students who are not ending the semester with the grade they hoped for, this is another to give extra encouragement to turn in assignments, let go of perfectionism, and maybe even plan to take an incomplete. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t acknowledge selfish reasons for wanting to end on a high note—student evaluations—but I have no illusions if I haven’t been a good teacher all semester that a last-minute cheerleading session is going to help.
Fishbach, A. (2022). Get it done: Surprising lessons from the science of motivation. Little, Brown Spark.
TED. (2023, February 27). Four proven ways to kick your procrastination habit | Ayelet Fishbach | TED [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB5J9qgM2zI
Holly S. Hebert, MLIS, is an assistant professor in the master of library science program at Middle Tennessee State University, where she serves as an online faculty mentor and has been involved in several faculty learning communities. She is a regular book reviewer for Library Journal and has several publications concerning the topics of public library services and online graduate students.