Giving Students a Blank Check

Yesterday in my first semester astronomy class, I did something I’d previously threatened to do. I walked in, tossed my personal checkbook onto the floor in the middle of the room, and told students to write checks for any amount they felt appropriate in exchange for them becoming more engaged both in and out of the classroom. I promised I would sign all the checks and they could cash them. That’s right, I openly bribed them.

I did this for two reasons. The first is I’m quite literally at my wit’s end on how to motivate students. Honestly, I don’t feel that I should have to go out of my way to motivate college students because they’re supposedly already sufficiently motivated to make it this far. However, most of my students (not all, but certainly most) arrive underprepared for college work and I have to pretend that I can fix that when I can’t. Still, I feel personally obligated to at least try to figure out why most of my students aren’t motivated to learn and only motivated to get a grade, and even then not a high grade. One student in another class yesterday said “Cs make degrees.” Yeah…see I can’t fix that. Fail. I’ve tried everything else I can think of to install motivation. I’ve been patient with underprepared students and tried to bring them up to speed. I’ve given them published papers describing findings that show the approach we take has distinct advantages over traditional approaches. At some point, students have to consciously decide to engage and learn and I just don’t see how I can force them to do that.

The second reason is I hope to jump start a discussion about motivation in general. To my surprise, this worked! One student, one of the very few who actually engages in the class and sees the big picture, said her motivation is to get an A. Perfectly acceptable. Now I know. She also said that those who don’t engage are cheating themselves in the long run, and she’s right. Another particularly quiet student disclosed that her lack of engagement was becuase the course was not what she expected it to be in terms of structure and organization. She expected a very tradional lecture based course and is still unsure of how to “exist” in a course where there are no lectures and no traditional grading. At last I got something I can understand and potentially work with, and this because the starting point of a thirty minute discussion of the differences in the two instructional models. Oh, and this student also referenced the course’s catalog description and suggested that it be changed to match how the class is run. I told her that our course descriptions are mandated to us by the NCCCS office and the UNC System, which effectively dictated them to us when we changed to a semester system in 1997/1998 and has veto power over not just our course descriptions, but also over course existence (we’re not permitted to create and offer transfer courses that any one campus of the UNC System will not accept despite being under a legislated mandate to do so).

My successful students are successful, I think, becuase they see that I’m trying to get across more than just “astronomy” in my course and I can provide tangible evidence of this in the form of emails from former students who, as undergraduates at large state universities, see the value in that approach now. I’m trying to instill a big picture mindset, one of becoming an independent learner and a critical thinker. Those are much harder to “see” than the basic astronomy and science content in the course. Students too often see the latter as an obstacle to the former despite the former being directly addressed in classroom activities. Science/astronomy is simple at this level, and students create so many excuses to not see it, and we let them get away with it. I don’t know that there are any good answers. If too many students fail the course, administrators threaten my job and entertain frivilous student “complaints” (like the student who failed the course and lodged a complaint that having to write in complete sentences constituted unfairness on my part becuase he hadn’t been required to use complete sentences in high school…that one got an audience with the dean). If too many students earn an A, that too raises suspicion of grade inflation. In a small class with a cap of twenty-four, statistics don’t mean much, especially with student performance varying widely from semester to semester but generally always low with a few exceptions.

In the end, no student actually wrote a check so maybe there’s hope. Some days, hope is all that keeps me going.


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