A wise teacher once said, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink no more than you can lead a student to knowledge and make him think.” Motivating students is one of the great challenges any teacher faces in any educational environment whether online or in the classroom. In this article, we will explore five keys to unlocking an adult student’s motivation to learn. Those keys are expertise, empathy, enthusiasm, clarity and cultural responsiveness. 1 This article will explore empathy.
Tom, an 18-year old high school graduate, had always heard what a great profession computer programming was from some of his relatives, so he decided to enroll at a local community college and begin work toward a career in the computer field. Tom had never had any substantial experience with computer technology, but it seemed like the right thing to do.
On his first day in class, he envisioned himself behind a computer, learning to program. Instead, Tom was in a classroom watching the instructor write on the board and lecturing logic. Subsequent classes Tom realized that none of the class time would be spent at the computer and that experience would come outside of class. The instructor then made an assignment, but didn’t tell the students how they were supposed to do the assignment on the computer. Tom didn’t realize most of the students already knew how to use the computer for the related assignments, but no one told Tom. As another week passed, Tom found himself increasingly frustrated. The instructor seemed to talk over his head and didn’t attach any new learning to things Tom already knew. Frustrated, Tom decided to drop the class and receive a portion of his tuition back.
When asked why he dropped the class, he responded, “it just didn’t seem to be valuable to me.”
Now obviously instructors cannot take all the blame in cases like this where students are unprepared for a course. However, didn’t the instructor have some greater responsibly to Tom to assist or get to know him prior to Tom dropping the course? This brings us to our second key for motivating adults to learn and that is empathy.
Good instructors will connect with their students and empathize with their experiences, strengths and weaknesses. This may be challenging for instructors with large classes, but that doesn’t quell the need to take certain reasonable actions to empathize with learners. For example, one professor teaches courses to more than 50 to 100 students in a class. At the beginning of the course, he asks each student to write a paragraph about themselves and what previous experience they had with the course content and their expectations for the class. He reviews those quickly and mentally files away notes about students so he can do his best to empathize with the situations of most of the students. That doesn’t mean he’ll be able to read minds, but it means he is better prepared to attach new things he is not going to teach them to the student’s preexisting knowledge.
Instructors should have a realistic understanding of the learner’s goals, perspectives and expectations for what is being learned. Having empathy also allows instructors to adapt instruction to the learner’s experience and skill level. Teaching to preexisting knowledge is one of the fundamental tenants of quality instruction. How do instructors know anything about a student’s preexisting knowledge unless they make a reasonable effort to find out?
Finally, empathy is not developed and maintained in just the first sessions of the class, it something that needs to be monitored and instruction adjusted as instructors instinctively identify the need for such. Practicing empathy helps connect with students to ensure they understand the value of what is being taught and how it applies to them. This in turn provides a powerful motivation to ensure the student and instructor are in synch with each other’s goals and objectives.
About the Author
Joe McClary, Ed.S, CAE, is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Association of Continuing Education and Training (IACET). Prior to his work with IACET, McClary served as the first Executive Director of the International Distance Education Certification Center (IDECC) which is an organization that develops internationally recognized distance learning standards. In his role with IDECC, McClary worked with more than 400 professional education providers and numerous regulatory agencies located across the globe.