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Students Need More Support. That's Not Coddling.

How meeting my students where they were helped them get further ahead.

Key points

  • Students can be capable and willing but unable to produce work that reflects their abilities.
  • Willpower and motivation might seem simple but tapping into them is complicated and takes more than determination.
  • Learning outcomes can improve when students have fewer things to think about at once.

I’ve taught journalism to undergraduate and graduate students at Columbia and New York University for 10 years. Sometimes my students complain, but they’ve always done the work.

This year, I see something different.

“Professor,” one of my strongest students said, “I can’t keep up with the classwork.”

She wasn’t alone.

“Professor, I want to understand the lesson, but I don’t.”

“You’re moving through the content too quickly.”

At the start of this school year, I saw more missed deadlines and sloppier stories than in any prior semester. I pushed my students to persevere. “You’ve got to work harder,” I said. I doubled down on deadlines.

It didn’t work.

“It seems like there's much less capability for work. Students are more fragile,” said influential psychologist Roy Baumeister, the author of Willpower: The Greatest Human Strength, among other books. His research shows that the brain’s ability to exert energy on tasks that require resolve isn’t infinite.

“When you’re thinking about one thing, you don’t have space and consciousness to do something else,” he said. “Brain functioning is costly.”

And these days, kids have a lot on their minds.

 Becky Diamond
When COVID shut his school down, my son Marty wanted to learn remotely but he found the experience stressful and difficult.
Source: Becky Diamond

Students struggle through invisible storms

Anxiety was increasing before the pandemic, and COVID made a bad situation worse. Stress spiked. Standardized test scores dropped. The headlines are sobering.

After Living Through a Pandemic, the Kids Aren’t Alright

Student Test Scores Plummeted in Math and Reading After the Pandemic

Screen Kids 8 and Older for Anxiety, Expert Panel Recommends

This year, I teach graduate students. Most of them live far from home, some for the first time. Adjusting to life in New York City is stressful. One student said she is nervous about crime. Others fret about family finances, catching COVID, or the impact of climate change.

Constant worries can make it harder to persevere and tap into willpower, said Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal, in this interview, for Stanford Medicine. “The biology of stress and the biology of willpower are simply incompatible,” she wrote.

Stress sends us into fight or flight mode, and that robs the brain of energy needed for other tasks, like learning. So, students who are capable and willing might not feel able.

My 5th-grade son seems unmotivated but he’s not lazy

My son Marty started this school year in a tough spot. As I wrote in this post, Marty missed most of last year because of debilitating fatigue and brain fog caused by undiagnosed celiac disease. And this was on top of COVID stress.

It’s been a rough few years for my 10-year-old. Marty struggled with stamina at the start of the school year. I was surprised when his teacher told me the second week of school this past September, “Marty isn’t willing to do his work.”

“He can’t hit the ground running,” I said. “He needs time to find his footing.”

Marty is a capable kid who grasps complicated concepts quickly. His teacher is supportive and wanted to help him catch up.

“Marty,” his teacher said, “you need to meet me halfway.”

 Becky Diamond
At the start of the school year, Marty was capable and willing but unable to produce work that reflected his abilities.
Source: Becky Diamond

I can’t,” he replied. “Can you meet me at the beginning?”

Even if there is a will, there isn't always a way

We’ve all been taught to believe in the brain.

“Figure it out,” my mom told me when I struggled.

“Make good choices,” I say to my son.

“Don’t give up!” I tell the students I teach.

Is it always possible to put mind over matter? I used to say yes. I slogged through overnight shifts in empty newsrooms and raised my hand when my boss asked for a “volunteer” to work a double. When I covered wars and a presidential campaign, I survived on no sleep. I got by on back-to-back cups of coffee and what I thought was sheer will.

If I could persevere 25 years ago, I figured that my students should be able to digest clearly presented information while they sit at a desk and sip custom lattes today.

But I wasn’t put to a test I couldn’t win. Times are different and students face hurdles that require them to use muscles they haven’t flexed or developed in the first place.

Ability takes more than aptitude

Today’s world is on demand. Kids don’t delay gratification or practice perseverance like I did.

When I was my son’s age, I watched The Bionic Woman once a week. I waited in lines with my mom at the supermarket. I wrote letters to friends and held a phone with a cord that was stuck to the wall when I chatted with my grandparents.

When Marty was five, he ordered a cheeseburger at a restaurant and asked for American cheese.

“I’m sorry,” the waitress said, “we ran out, but we have cheddar.”

Marty suggested someone “could call Amazon and get it delivered.”

When he wants to see his grandma, he touches a green icon on his iPad and she appears, smiling, on his screen.

When Marty returned to school in September, he said “math is boring.”

Compared to watching the 220 episodes of Naruto that he streamed over the summer, I’m sure it was.

Attention spans seem shorter today. Teachers told me that kids in their classroom “can’t concentrate or control their impulses."

It’s no wonder kids are struggling in school, said school psychologist and consultant Rebecca Comizio. “We didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle or as many choices for how to spend our time. [Kids] have been raised in an immediate-gratification, entertainment environment. You won’t get a kid today [with] the same motivation because what motivated previous generations doesn't work anymore. When we adjust our expectations, that’s not coddling. That’s reality,” she said.

Becky Diamond
Marty working on math at school. By early November, Marty felt motivated and more secure in his ability to produce schoolwork.
Source: Becky Diamond

I met my students where they were.

In early October, I started my class with an announcement.

“We’re going back to basics.”

I cut out a project, reducing graded assignments from five to four. It was the first time in my 10 years of teaching that I changed my curriculum. I extended the remaining deadlines, improved my PowerPoint presentations, and used better visuals that supported my lectures.

Something seemed to click.

“Professor, my story is getting better. May I send you another revision?”

“I think I get this!”

“The lesson makes sense.”

I didn’t reduce the demands to make my students like me or smile. But the level of their engagement in class made everyone happy. And to my surprise, their submissions became solid. They learned just as much with this more supportive structure.

Learning outcomes can improve when students have fewer things to hold in their active, working memory at once, said Dr. Ian Kelleher, a high school chemistry and physics teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, who co-wrote Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education. “After COVID, everyone wanted to get back to speed, but there are gaps in learning skills and core knowledge, which makes learning harder,” he said.

Dr. Kelleher works with teachers across the country to adjust their classroom practices, based on research. When teachers avoid classroom clutter, give clear instructions and help students build knowledge step by step, working memory is less strained and learning improves.

A few students approached me after class.

“Professor, thanks for teaching us. We are learning so much.”

“So am I,” I said.

Epilogue

I don’t want to feel trapped in a gap between what I wish was happening and what really is. I’ve decided to give my students the extra support they need, now.

I spoke to Marty’s teacher about the difference between unwilling and unable.

“It’s impossible to know,” I said. “But kids do because they can, not because they want.”

The teacher met Marty where he was. He allowed Marty to take more breaks and to produce less work in September and October. Week by week, Marty experienced small successes and was able to produce more.

“He’s really making progress!” his teacher said in November.

Feeling like he can do it made him more willing to try.

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