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Do I Need a Pencil For This Midterm? Motivation vs. Personal Responsibility

Meghan Mathis

Do I Need A Pencil for this Midterm?

My high school just finished administering midterm exams. While they generally went very well, my colleagues and I were dumbstruck by how many of our students showed up completely unprepared for an exam that was worth such a large part of their overall grade. Many students showed up without pencils – for a test they knew would be primarily taken on Scantron sheets. Worse still, many of the same students showed up without pencils two or three days in a row despite being given a new pencil each day. Others had been given opportunities to make “cheat sheets,” index cards with information about the test material on it that they were permitted to use during the midterm.  Numerous students simply chose not do it, forgoing the opportunity to have access to answers during the test. 

When asked about it, most stated unabashedly not that they didn’t need the extra help, but that it was “too much work,” “boring,” or “not worth it.”  Uniformly, it was not the students who would ace the test who came without the cheat sheet – in fact those students often arrived with notecards that looked like you’d need a magnifying glass to read them because they were so jammed with information – but the students who would have most benefited from having key vocabulary words, mathematical formulas, or dates of historical events on hand during the test. Why would these students act this way?  Why would they willingly choose not to help themselves and why would a high school sophomore, junior or senior who knew better, show up so unprepared? 

The Problem

The more we talked, the more my colleagues and I realized that this is a problem that we are seeing every day, not just during an exam.  Students showing up unprepared for class expecting to be provided with supplies or being surprised that showing up without a book, their folder, or other required materials would be a problem.  Students refusing to prepare for assignments, quizzes, tests, not because they think they’ll do well even if they don’t prepare – but because they simply don’t seem to care. 

“Why are you surprised by this?” my husband commented when I complained to him about what I was seeing.  “There have always been students who failed no matter how hard their teachers tried to help them.” he continued.  And, to an extent, he’s right.  No matter how hard we try, there will always be students who simply choose to fail.  We, as educators, will never give up trying, but we know that this reality exists.  So why was I still stewing about it?

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I realized that the behavior my fellow teachers and I were talking about isn’t coming from the students who don’t care about failing, but rather from students who genuinely want to pass – and believe that they should pass, even if they show up without their required materials and refuse to study.  The problem we are seeing is not so much a lack of caring as it is a sense of entitlement – students increasingly behaving as if they should be given credit for doing the bare minimum (or less) and becoming somewhat indignant when we don’t give it to them. 

Potential Consequences

Anytime I find myself grumbling about, “kids these days,” I always try to take a breath and reach out to others to make sure I’m not just having a bad day.  My concerns regarding students’ motivation were certainly echoed in my building and by fellow middle and high-school teachers I communicate with on Facebook and in my personal life, but what about elsewhere.  Were colleges seeing similar behaviors?  Were business owners?

I contacted a professor at a selective university in the south.  I was interested in hearing her thoughts since the students she interacts with had to be prepared and motivated enough to be accepted to her school.  While I expected her to share a few of the same experiences, I was surprised by how much her concerns sounded like my own.  “Students expect to be rewarded solely for effort, rather than any kind of accomplishment or excellence,” she began.  “I have a pretty strict policy about deadlines,” she continued, “I require 48 hours notice for an extension.  But students still email me right before class with some sort of excuse (like another test to study for), and then are surprised when I don’t accept it.”  At one point she added that many of her students act as if her holding true to the policies she went over with them at the beginning of the course was “not just unreasonable, but cruel -  like I’m personally trying to sabotage them, rather than just hold them accountable.” 

I did not reach out to any local businesses, but since many of my students head straight into the workforce after high school, I worry.  Will a business owner give these students as many chances as we do at the high school level?  Will a boss hand the student another [fill in the blank] if they show up without one each day like we hand out pencils?  I can’t imagine that they will.  And if that is the case, then am I really helping my students by allowing this behavior…or am I actually teaching them to be irresponsible?

Possible Causes

So if middle school, high school, and college educators are all observing this behavior and agree that it is detrimental, why is it continuing to happen?  There seemed to be several potential possibilities.  One, was an attitude many teachers felt coming from administration that they should “overlook” or “ignore” as much negative behavior as they could in a pursuit of spending as much time teaching as possible.  “Do you want to argue with the student for 10 minutes over why they don’t have a pencil,” an administrator once asked me, “or do you want to toss the kid a pencil and get to the lesson?”  While I understood his point, I walked away thinking, “I want the student to know that arriving to class prepared is an important aspect of being a successful student and that arriving prepared is a skill he is going to need for the rest of his life.  I don’t want to waste 10 minutes a day arguing about it…but surely those aren’t my only two options!”  Have we brought much of our students’ behavior on ourselves by choosing to let certain behaviors slide?

Some of the teachers I spoke with mentioned parents who wanted to argue with them over how they graded, fighting for their children to get “A’s” for what the teacher deemed to be “B” quality work.  “If I share a rubric with my students that explains exactly how I will grade them and then, when a student gets a B or a C they immediately try to get their parents to argue it up to an A…what message does that send?  I feel like some parents do not respect the expectations I have set for their students in my class.”  Others pointed to our culture, “Everything about our culture celebrates people ‘being themselves,’ ‘being real.’  It has created students who think that they should be able to talk to teachers the same way they talk to their friends or their parents.”  Other teachers heard that and shook their heads laughing, “You sound like you should follow that line up with – ‘those young whippersnappers!”  The only thing I really could get everyone to agree upon was that students did seem to feel more entitled to a passing grade for far less work – but no one had a firm, solid answer as to why.

Potential Solutions

Interestingly, most educators I spoke with agreed upon the swiftest and simplest solution.  We must have high expectations for our students – and we must stand firmly behind them, even when challenged.  While that sounds simple, it will require the support of our administrators who will have to stand behind us when we don’t allow students to have extensions on their projects, when we lower a student’s grade because they frequently arrive to class unprepared, and support us when a parent demands we make exceptions for their student.

We also have to make sure that we aren’t just talking about having high standards – but we’re keeping them.  It can be hard to “fight the good fight” every day.  It is easier just to hand the student a pencil for the third day in a row, rather than devise a punishment or incentive to encourage him/her to bring one on their own.  But if we are going to be true to our purpose of preparing our students to be successful adults, we have to be willing to require them to be better, work harder, and accept responsibility for their actions.

Finally, I think we need to discuss this issue with our students.  When we share our expectations with them we need to explain why our policies are what they are.  It can seem arbitrary or unfair to a student that they will lose points if they show up without their materials - but most understand that adults are expected to show up prepared for work each day.  When explained in that light – that we are preparing them for success in the rest of their adult lives – the rule becomes less about us being authoritarian or unfair, and more about us treating them like the young adults they are – mastering all the skills they will need in order to become responsible, successful adults. 

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