TITLE: What Motivates Kids These Days AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 05, 2008 8:04 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

Who am I being when I am not seeing
a connection in the eyes of others?
-- Benjamin Zander

I was all set to write an entry about "students these days", but I see that Mark Guzdial beat me to the punch. Two earlier entries chronicled my experience in class this semester. This is a course I have taught every third semester in recent years, and before that I taught it every year or even every semester for a few years stretching back to the mid-1990s. This has given me a longitudinal view of our student population as it has performed on common content, with common materials and a common approach in the classroom. Certainly the course has evolved a bit in that time, as I try to keep the course forward-looking as well as grounded in basic content. But with all those changes, I don't think the course's fundamental character has changed. If anything, I'd be inclined to say that I do a better job now than way back when, because I've learned how to do a better job. (That may be wishful thinking, of course.) Yet this semester has felt more challenging than I remember. If I look back at this course over the years, though, can see that there have been signs of change. The last time we offered this course, I noted that students seemed less obviously engaged in the material than in recent times. That group turned out to be well-prepared and thoughtful, but with a quiet personality and a need to see how the course fit into their goals before they made an observable commitment. Maybe in the three years since the last offering before that we have begun to see a different kind of student in CS. Guzdial describes one of the changes that may be responsible: the broadening of the population that attends college and, indeed, is expected to. With the widening of the pool, we are likely to see more students with varying commitments to the academic enterprise. We might also see students who are less well-prepared. A common hypothesis among faculty I know is that the CS student body we have built up since the dot.com bust has been different from the group we encountered before. Maybe that's just another example of old fogies wishing for the good old days, but I don't think so. I think we have seen a much wider range of ability, preparation, and motivation in the newer student body than we had back in the "good old days" of the 1990s. With a larger, more diverse set of students attending college now than then, this is a natural outcome. I don't think today's students learn differently, or have diminished capacity to learn, from exposure to the internet, iPods, and Wiis. And these students are, for the most part, as well-prepared as students before, at least when we account for the increased diversity of the pool. I do think that students have different motivations and different levels of motivation than previous classes. One of our undergrads tells a story consistent with my observation. He runs free tutoring sessions as a public service to students in our intro programming courses. He wrote recently that he doesn't get as much traffic from CS majors (his primary audience) as he had hoped. On a particular night:
Interestingly enough, all three students were non-CS majors. I'm not entirely sure what that means overall. They are taking a class they don't need -AND- they are seeking help outside of class hours. That alone is unusual. We also discussed all the concepts on paper and each student hand wrote their own notes, which was surprising to me as well.
This tutor is one of our most talented and self-motivated students, so I'm not surprised that he would notice an apparent lack of motivation among his peers. Asking for help is an odd one. In my class, I have several strong students who are scoring lower than they do in other courses, yet only a very few have asked any questions. A couple have, but not until after a quiz that deflates their spirits. I've asked them why they haven't asked questions about the puzzling material earlier. The answers are a mix of optimism ("I just assume that I'll be able to figure this out"), pride ("I don't want to give up and ask for help"), and poor time management ("well, I didn't start the assignment until..."). I was a pretty good student, but I have vivid memories of getting up early one day my sophomore year, picking up a box of punch cards, and heading over to see my Assembler II prof promptly at the start of his 8 AM office hour because I was struggling with a now-forgotten JCL issue. (8 AM?! Many of my students say that 10 AM office hours are too early!) I'm optimistic and proud, but I was also motivated to succeed -- grade-wise, if nothing else. But I suspect that I probably wanted to learn more than I wanted to save face. As Guzdial says, it may be that today's students are motivated by different things.
... the case for why something is worth learning is increasingly borne by the teacher, ... and the sense of value for what's to be learned is increased based in vocational terms.
This has always been an issue for me when teaching functional programming and Scheme, where the language, style, and ideas are foreign to what students tend to experience in the intro course language du jour and current professional practice. But I would think it'd be easier to motivate many functional programming concepts in a day when Python, Ruby, and even serious languages like C# and Java are bringing to the masses. (Maybe that says something about my skills as a motivator...) In any case, rather than leave the burden for what's different now at the feet of our students, we CS instructors face the challenge of figuring out how to teach differently. Add this to changes in the discipline and the need for more non-CS students to incorporate computing into their professions and lives, and the challenge becomes even more "interesting". -----