The challenge of being an extrinsic learner

In my last blog post I touched on the fact that I’m an extrinsically motivated learner, I need to be working towards a goal rather than learning for learning’s sake. Thus, in times where I’m not working towards a specific deliverable such as a report, or a publication, I can find it challenging to maintain focus and motivation and frequently end up bored. This also happens when I’ve been working on the same thing for a while (which is what is happening at the moment!). During the first couple of years of my undergraduate I particularly struggled to stay motivated. All of the material was brand new to me, large parts of electronic theory weren’t interesting to me, and I had no idea why we were learning some parts of it. When I’m demonstrating in undergraduate labs at the moment I see students like how I used to be, just trying to pass the time and get to the end of the lab script without caring what I was supposed to be doing. It’s hard to help people when they don’t ask for help, or won’t respond if you go over and see if they need any assistance. I try and make myself as approachable as possible and explain things clearly, but at the end of the day there’s only so much you can do with someone who doesn’t care if they learn the material or not.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently as I’ve been offered a fantastic opportunity to help design an undergraduate module. Alongside teaching the students as much as we can of the relevant material to a high standard, one of my personal aims is to capture the attention of the less motivated students. One way to achieve this, which personally I find very useful, is to make the practical assessments as relevant to the real world as possible. Being able to see how you can apply 10 hours of dull lectures to the real world once you’ve graduated (as the majority of students don’t stay in higher education) can motivate them to gain a skill that they can discuss on their CV. Another area that I feel is very much neglected is including in the module introduction a simple explanation of what the purpose of the module is. Is it to teach a Threshold Concept for your area, or to learn a tool that you will use in future modules, what are the real-world applications of this theory, etc… Unfortunately while I would like to change the format of the teaching from a standard lecture then lab each week approach, this isn’t possible this year which is a shame as I don’t believe lectures are the most effective learning environments (and I believe this has been shown empirically but I don’t have the time to search for studies now). You would also like to imagine that now undergraduate are paying upwards of £9,000 a year that should be sufficient motivation in itself, but unfortunately not. Maybe we’d be better with an American system where you aren’t forced to choose a degree at the age of 18 when you likely haven’t studied that area before!


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