INTRODUCTION: I teach transfer as well as developmental level English courses. I’ve been most disturbed by the attrition rate of both my under-prepared and bright students. Half way through one recent semester of my Developmental English class (pre-Comp I), I noticed the original energy of the students was slipping, absences were increasing, and more homework was coming in late. So I needed an activity that would give these students a chance to re-energize themselves for the “last lap.” I developed an assignment that would give my students an opportunity to delve deep into what could motivate them to continue working hard and achieve success. Although I used this activity in a composition course, variations of it (such as a letter or journal entry) could be used in any course where the instructor is seeing students’ motivation and efforts flagging. I suggest using it between the sixth week and mid-semester.  

PURPOSE:

  • To re-energize student motivation to achieve an academic goal
  • To help students discover their own personal steps to achieve an academic goal
  • To inspire more responsible student behavior and class participation

SUPPLIES/SET UP:

  • Handout A: “Steps to Achieve a Goal” (appended below)
  • Chalk and chalkboard to note rough outline or essay “plan” suggestions
  • Pen and paper to begin the essay (or appropriate supplies if teaching in a computer lab)
  • Colored paper half sheets for a “New Changes” Reminder/Bookmark (optional)
  • Handout B: “Initial Feedback” (appended below)
  • Handout C: “End-of-Semester Feedback” (appended below)

DIRECTIONS:

1. Explain that midterm is the time of the semester when many students lose sight of their academic goals, lose motivation, and stop taking actions necessary for college success. Offer specific examples from behaviors of past students. Suggest to students that now would be a good time for them to take a look at a key goal they have for college this semester, reminding themselves of their personal motivation for succeeding.

2. Distribute Handout A: “Steps to Achieve a Goal.” Have students fill in the blanks.

3.  Distribute the colored half sheets and then, based on question # 7 of Handout A (Steps), have students complete a “New Changes Reminder/Bookmark” that they can keep in their textbook or post at home for frequent review.

4.  If possible, allow class time for large- or small-roup discussion, especially about ways to change negative tendencies. Students will realize they are not alone in facing challenges and will benefit from each other’s action steps or tips for change.  For example, if a student targets “study more carefully,” other class members may offer some specific study tips that work for them. Or if a student wonders how to resist friends who want to party mid-week, first ask the student what he/she thinks would work, and then seek additional input from the class. What has worked for them?

5. Next, ask the students to discuss how they could organize an essay based on the information they gave in the “Steps to Achieve a Goal” handout. Although organization is often a weak point for students, they will probably see that the question order fits the progression of an essay—introductory information presenting the thesis (focus), body paragraphs with main points, and, of course, concluding remarks which can be added.  Perhaps they’ll see that questions #3 and #8 could be combined in one paragraph and questions #6 and #7 could be combined in another paragraph. As we discuss possible organizational structures, I encourage my students to make notes in the margin of their handout for reference; simultaneously I write the same information on the chalkboard so students will have accurate notes.

6. Allow class time for writing the essay or assign the writing as homework. Some students may feel this essay is very personal, but for those who are willing, encourage a peer exchange of rough drafts for feedback. A great learning opportunity!

7. Have students hand in two copies of their essays.

8. Have students complete Handout B:  Initial Feedback. Have students share their answers with a partner; then lead a class discussion about their responses. In particular, look for similarities and differences among the answers. Have students explain the reasons for their answers.

9. After grading the essays, return one copy of each essay and keep the other copy for a subsequent class meeting.

10. Toward the end of the semester, return the second copy of their essays and have students re-read them as a reminder of their goals. Then have students complete Handout C: End of Semester Feedback.  Lead a discussion about their responses: Ask, “Have you achieved the goal(s) you wrote about in your essay?” Especially draw out any success stories and what the student specifically did to create the success. (What obstacles were overcome? How? Did personal rewards work as a motivator? Did another person serve as motivation? If the goal still remains a goal, what new strategies might work? Perhaps have students request tips/advice from others.) Help students discover what does/does not motivate them in college. IMPORTANT: Have blank extras of Handout A:  “Steps to Achieve a Goal” for students who wish to target a new goal for the next semester.

EXPERIENCES:

I was very impressed with the open, honest discovery process the students explored. They seemed to know what their strengths were and more importantly were very aware of what they were doing that could get in the way of their success. One bright female student said, “I rush through my work, not reading directions.”  Another female student wrote, “I know I sometimes stay out too late at night, which causes me to not get enough sleep and makes my brain lazy to the subjects that I have to learn the next day.” One male student even wrote: “Even though I’m unorganized it doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes me a bad student.”

And students know the solutions: “If you don’t want to get big and fat while watching T.V. all day, you need to get up everyday, and get to school on time,” says one young gal. Another faced the temptation of hanging out with her friends: “I explained to my friends that I had a lot of homework and they responded, ‘So do I, I just don’t want to do it.’ So we all went to the library and focused on getting our homework done and then afterwards we rewarded ourselves by going out and having a good time. A reward to accomplish something you may not want to do always works for me.” One sensitive young guy said, “Listening is the key to doing well in college; otherwise, you’ll fall behind everybody else in class. If you are able to listen [when someone is talking to you] even when the heart is pounding in your chest, then you’re in good shape to go to college.”

I do feel that since I read their essays, I feel closer to the students; I’m excited about their goals; and I want to find ways to help them figure out what is hindering their success, especially when they know what to do but need a boost to actually do it. I think my students behaved more warmly toward each other and me as a result of doing the activity and probably reacting to my own more positive feelings about them. For example, the students seemed to engage in more friendly conversation with each other before class and during appropriate breaks in class activities. The classroom “manner” seemed more polite and responsive overall and especially when I began speaking (less side chatting).  One young male student began to talk to me more about his concerns. Through his essay, I became aware of how his father keeps him quite busy in the construction business. He (the student) often seems very tired in class. I had a conversation with him about being sure his own wishes for his career plans were being understood by his dad. I recommended him for a program that prepares developmental level students for engineering and technical careers and that would pay his tuition next semester.

OUTCOMES:

The Initial Feedback questionnaire about their feelings immediately after writing the essay revealed the following results:  (Be prepared to gather results from absent students for a full class picture.)

QUESTION 1. AFTER I COMPLETED MY ESSAY ON ACHIEVING ONE MAIN STUDENT GOAL, I FELT MORE COMMITTED TO ACHIEVING THAT GOAL. 

Results: Thirteen out of fourteen ranked this “7” or higher.  One rated this “5.”

QUESTION 2: AFTER I COMPLETED MY ESSAY ON ACHIEVING ONE MAIN STUDENT GOAL, I REALIZED THAT I HAD SOME GOOD STRENGTHS TO USE.

Results: Twelve out of fourteen ranked this “7” or higher while two gave this a “5.”

QUESTION 3. AFTER I COMPLETED MY ESSAY, I FELT THAT I COULD OVERCOME MY NEGATIVE TENDENCIES OR BAD HABITS.

Results: Ten ranked this “7” or higher while four ranked this “5” or lower. (This does show some doubts or perhaps realism about the challenge that remained.)

QUESTION 4. AFTER I WROTE MY ESSAY, I NOTICED SOME POSITIVE CHANGES IN MY INNER THINKING AND “SELF TALK” ABOUT COLLEGE AND MY COURSES.

Results: Twelve out of fourteen ranked this “7” or higher while two gave this a “5” or lower.

QUESTION 5. AFTER I WROTE MY ESSAY, I NOTICED SOME POSITIVE CHANGES IN MY STUDYING AND CLASSROOM PARTICIPATION.

Results: Eleven of fourteen scored this “6” or higher while three others gave this “5” or lower.

* * * * *

The End-of-the Semester questionnaire about the student’s feelings after re-reading their essay at least six weeks later revealed the following:

QUESTION 1. AFTER REREADING MY ESSAY ON ACHIEVING ONE MAIN STUDENT GOAL, I REALIZE THAT I AM USING THE POSITIVE QUALITIES I KNEW I HAD.

Results: Eleven of fourteen ranked this “6” or higher while 3 others gave this “5” or lower.

QUESTION 2. AFTER REREADING MY ESSAY, I REALIZE THAT I ALSO HAVE PICKED UP SOME OF THE OTHER POSITIVE QUALITIES THAT ARE REQUIRED FOR ME TO ACHIEVE MY GOAL.

Results: Twelve gave a “6” or higher while two gave this a “5” or lower.

QUESTION 3: I KNOW THAT THE POSITIVE SELF-TALK AND INNER THINKING MENTIONED IN THE ESSAY IS STILL CONTINUING.

Results: Twelve gave a “6” or higher while two gave this a “1.”

QUESTION 4: I AM CONTINUING THE POSITIVE CHANGES IN MY STUDYING AND CLASSROOM PARTICIPATION.

Results: Twelve gave a “6” or above while two gave this a “5” or lower.

QUESTION 5. READING THE ESSAY AGAIN REMINDS ME THAT I WANT TO RECOMMIT TO GOOD STUDYING AND CLASSROOM PARTICIPATION SO THAT I CAN CONTINUE TO ACHIEVE MY OTHER MAIN GOAL AS A STUDENT.

Results: All fourteen ranked this “6” or above.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the positive improvement recognized by the students themselves in their questionnaires, and the improvement visible in my classroom—better attitude and participation. Of course, I’ll never know who may have dropped out if I had not done this activity. But I’m please to say that all but one who wrote the essay persisted in the course.  The student who withdrew had documented pregnancy complications and chose to reduce her stress level.

I intend to make this activity an ongoing part of this course.  I look forward to saying, “Everyone read your “New Changes” bookmark.”  And I’ll read mine, too!


LESSONS LEARNED:

I tend to think that if students know what to do they’ll do it. But obviously it’s not that easy as I realized while reading their essays. I learned that I’m so goal-oriented and success oriented that I have a hard time understanding why students persist in their self-defeating behavior. Through the essays I could piece together some of their thinking and begin to see the obstacles (work, transportation, health) and temptations (unsupportive friends/family and television/partying) that confront them.

Ultimately I do feel a deeper connection to these students than in past developmental classes.  This connection helped me stay more positive and energetic throughout the semester.

I usually schedule just one developmental course per semester because working with the students requires so much patience and time. I’m constantly trying to figure out what will help them persist. Fortunately, I’m finally learning that my job is to create activities and assignments that help them figure it out…not me. They are their own best source of motivation.

SUPPORT MATERIALS:

HANDOUT  A: Steps to Achieve a Goal

1) MY ROLE: Student

2) MY MAIN GOAL this semester:

3) The actions or steps I must take to achieve my goal are…

4) The positive qualities I will need to take these actions or steps toward my goal are…

5) As a student I have several of these qualities that will help me reach my goal.   As a student, I am….

6) I have several tendencies that could interfere with reaching my goal.  As a student, I sometimes (or often) tend to…

7) Because I want to abolish my negative tendencies, I plan to make the following changes:  (You’ll also write these on your “New Changes” Reminder/Bookmark.)

8) Because I am committed to achieving this goal, I will set a time or deadline to achieve each necessary action or step in #3.  (Write the due date or “start now” alongside each action or step above.)

 * * * * *

HANDOUT  B: INITIAL FEEDBACK        

NAME (optional)_________________________________

1. After I completed my essay on achieving one main student goal, I felt more committed to achieving that goal.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 

2. After I completed my essay on achieving one main student goal, I realized that I had some good strengths to use.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 

3. After I completed my essay, I felt that I could overcome my negative tendencies or bad habits.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 

4. After I wrote my essay, I noticed some positive changes in my inner thinking and “self talk” about college and my courses.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 

5. After I wrote my essay, I noticed some positive changes in my studying and classroom participation.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 * * * * *

HANDOUT  C: END-OF-SEMESTER FEEDBACK    

NAME (optional)__________________________

 

1. After rereading my essay on achieving one main student goal, I realize that I am using the positive qualities I knew I had.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 

2. After rereading my essay, I realize that I also have picked up some of the other positive qualities that are required for me to achieve my goal.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 

3. I know that the positive self-talk and inner thinking mentioned in the essay is still continuing.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 

4.   I am continuing the positive changes in my studying and classroom participation.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

 

5. Reading the essay again reminds me that I want to recommit to good studying and classroom participation so that I can continue to achieve my other main goal as a student.

Definitely No    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    Definitely Yes

Comments:

— Regina Popper, Faculty, English, St. Louis Community College, MO

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