Chang*, my student, asked me why my assignments are due at 11:59pm each Sunday – Why not midnight? Wouldn’t that be easier to type into Etudes? 🙂
Good question. I’ve had other students ask me that too. Luckily, I have a good answer, which also sets it up for a point to be made. I tell them that in the past my assignments were indeed due at midnight. But I found that most of the students ended up doing their work at the last minute. So I went and took that last minute away. Now they’re due at 11:59 instead.
When I tell them that, which, fortunately, they find mildly amusing, I have an opportunity to talk to them a bit about procrastination, and about my own past struggles with it and how I overcame it (well, most of the time, anyway). The truth is that our world is filled with temptations. And some of them are hard to resist. It’s easy to give in to the suspicion that if we don’t enjoy something right away, we’ll lose the opportunity to enjoy it forever. Indeed, it frequently seems that our brain has evolved to do everything in its power to find reasons why that would be true. But moments of calm detached reflection are all that’s needed to realize that more often than not, the thing we want to enjoy will still be there, fresh as ever, when we come back to it after we’re done with our chores.
It’s true that computer programming (any scholarly pursuit, actually) ought not be a chore. I’m fond of droning on that the most important takeaway from a college course shouldn’t be a letter grade, but the discovery of a lasting love for the subject: “Once you’ve developed that love, there’s no stopping you … The happiness you’ll get from the mastery of the material is deep, and consequently that much deeper is my own vicarious enjoyment (as a teacher) of your mastery.” That epiphanic moment when things just click and the learning process becomes its own reward is positively exhilarating to experience, even second hand (Isn’t that why we’re teachers?) As Dweck points out far more forcefully in , the growth mindset, which learns because it loves doing so, is far more likely to succeed (and have fun while at it) than one that does so for other reasons. But to get to that point where one has gathered enough momentum to plow forward no matter what, the moment when appreciation of the subject becomes the fuel for a relentless forward march (I think of this as a point of no return) requires some up front work. And my work is to make sure that this other work for my students is as easy as possible.
I strive to find new ways to make the learning experience enjoyable for my students. I constantly experiment with tried and trusted techniques recommended by my more experienced colleagues. Yet, I appreciate that there are some aspects of any subject inherently hard for students to find enjoyable at first, unless they’ve gone through the rites of passage to master less enjoyable preparatory material (especially during the first few weeks of each term). True fulfillment typically comes from the creative aspects of an art or science, and this must wait until after the prep work is done – A master potter didn’t become one until after a few thousand (or more?) misshaped pots had been thrown: It would be unrealistic to assume that the potter enjoyed making every one of these “practice pots” lining the way to her success.
“And so,” I tell them, “a deep satisfaction and lasting enjoyment awaits. But the path to it may not always be rosy everywhere.” I remind them that I am (and everyone else at Foothill are) there for them to make that path easy. We’re committed to and continually looking for ways to make the journey as pleasant as possible. But at the end of the day, a student must believe that the end will be worth it and develop something like a dogged determination to carry on, even when the going gets tough because – just because – they take it on faith that it will be worth it.
These constant reminders from me seem to be working. Either these, or my secondary counsel to them following on from the previous one: That drink with their friends or the new movie on Netflix would be far more enjoyable if consumed guilt-free – without the nagging memory of unfinished business they have to get to after enjoying their premature reward. Yes, that must be it. By working towards a future reward, the work becomes more palatable and the reward, when earned, more enjoyable. The other way around taints the up-front enjoyment of the reward in my mind, not to mention turning the later activity into a real chore!
- Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
*Names are fictitious, of course.