Celebrating the Good
“Think about it”, she said, “they are offered a hands-on experience with an achievable goal that has regular rewards as they make progress. And the cost of failure is negligible, so they are not afraid to push the boundaries of their previous success.”
I went home that night and really watched the kids playing Mario Kart. They concentrated and shared some competitive verbiage with one another, but I noticed for the first time that they were happy and motivated to try again, regardless of the outcome. When they won, a large trophy appeared on the screen, and they seemed to glow in their sense of accomplishment. If they drove off the road during the game and their car went into the abyss, the only cost imposed was a short delay before they rejoined the race. They didn’t hesitate to attempt the same move again. Regardless of their final place in the race, the costs of failure were small, and they were ready to give it another try.
Watching them prompted me to think about my teaching and how these strategies might work there as well.
As with parenting, teaching can be more effective if we recognize and reward our students when they are doing what we expect them to be doing, even at everyday otherwise not noticeable events such as coming prepared to class.
And, when students are not doing what we expect, it is most effective to limit our reaction and attention. “If you must respond,” our Nurtured Heart instructor said, “simply indicate the behavior or words are not acceptable and impose the consequences quickly and without fanfare.”
Basically, celebrate good behavior and give little attention to the bad.
These simple lessons have served me well as I applied these concepts to my teaching.
Let’s take a look at a few of the ways you can use the Nurtured Heart approach to motivate your students.
First, simply recognize students. The idea that genuine recognition strengthens engagement and performance is not new but yet the strategy is underemployed.
In an online class and during our HyFlex instruction when in-person attendance was low, acknowledging students was easy as the remote attendees’ names were provided for us on the screen. Short of requiring name tags, with in-person classes, the task may initially be challenging as we work to learn each student’s name, but it is worth the effort.
See the Good in Your Students
Even better, let students know you see their good. To be genuine, you need to recognize the good, which I define as working diligently to complete tasks and learn material and how to apply it.
This of course may also be easier in smaller classes as you can observe and recognize good work.
For larger classes, I find it often takes some analytics to reach my goal that every student be recognized personally at least twice before midterm. In my current online class of 200 students, the first recognition is a personalized reference to something they shared in their self-introduction. The second requires I identify where each individual student did good.
There are the straightforward cases such as when a student did excellent work on an assignment, quiz or exam. Beyond that, analytics help you recognize students who have improved, such as performing better on the second exam than the first. There are students who can be congratulated for not missing a single deadline four weeks in and those who have steadily performed, if not great, good. There are endless rubrics by which we can identify the good in our students. It takes a bit more work, but it is encouraging for the students and rewarding for me to see that encouragement.
Minimalize Constructive Feedback
Finally, provide a relatively low-key response to student transgressions. I personally suffered from showing my love for students by providing them considerable constructive feedback regarding areas they could improve their writing, presentation, attendance, timeliness of completing course requirements, and so on. Eventually and after considerable practice, following the Nurtured Heart approach I became a minimalist at providing constructive feedback.
I recognized that I had plenty of prior experience that pointed to this as the right approach. For example, I cannot remember where I left my phone half an hour ago, but nearly three decades later, I recall the disappointment of receiving my dissertation draft back from my advisor covered in red ink with critical comments, editorial and otherwise, like it was yesterday. He provided this feedback because he cared about me and the work, but the unintended effect was a decrease in motivation and a fear of trying again. Now, I work to identify something good to share for every constructive comment I make. It is natural to focus on areas for improvement especially in the learning environment where mistakes are commonplace, but there are also endless sources of good.
In addition to motivating students by reducing perceived risk of pushing the boundaries of learning, the minimalist approach can help students learn more. Accepting editorial suggestions throughout a document is not challenging, but reading one brief constructive comment about organization, wording, or use of citations, for example, and working to apply the lesson learned to an entire paper will help solidify the concept and allow students to practice its application.
Of course, we cannot simply cheer on students regardless of effort and performance. I am only asking that you consider additional and purposeful efforts to celebrate the good and recognize but do not dwell on the bad.
I challenge you to take a moment to ponder your teaching. Are you offering low stakes, interesting options that get students excited to learn without fear of the consequences of being wrong?
Doing so takes work and may not initially seem natural, or we would already be doing it.
Spending this past year in daily close proximity to my children suggested the Nurtured Heart strategy made an important difference in my parenting and that they themselves have adopted the technique of praising the good and limiting their reaction to the bad. I will never tire of hearing that I performed well in preparing a dish I have served hundreds of times throughout the years or that someone recognized that I organized the closet. And I will never be afraid to try cooking something new because the kids will not focus on the outcome if unsuccessful but will find something good and genuine to share about, if not the food, the experience.
Great work reading this blog to the end!
Please share your comments, stories and ideas.
About the Author:
Cheryl Wachenheim is a professor in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. She has been teaching at NDSU for twenty-two years, each better than the previous. She has two children.