First published in Dutch on the 23rd of March 2010
A need for tangible solutions
“I understand the significance of your narrative but I had expected things to be a little more concrete.” This was an anticipated reaction from someone in the audience during my presentation about study drives. I often encounter a similar reaction from students, tutors, teachers and other interested people. It is the logical result of my particular approach to the topic. People often expect a collection of practical strategies, techniques, and general profundities; however, they are never as effective as they would seem, since they hardly ever offer the desired solutions.
Many students I supervise feel a need for concrete strategies with which they can study academic texts effectively or prevent themselves from putting off their work. In the early days of my work I passionately provided students with specific strategies with which they could, for instance, scan a book. However, I quickly found students complaining that the strategies would work for one particular book A, but not for book B. How, then, is the latter best to be tackled? It became fruitless to follow this path further, because I would then be presented with books C, D, E, and F. It was then that I understood the crucial problem. Students often do not want to learn to study strategically. They simply want concrete strategies that will always work in whatever situation. They fail to realize that ‘concrete’ and ‘always’ are mutually exclusive in this respect. Especially in higher education concrete strategies that always work simply do not exist.
By definition inadequate
In student coaching what is often emphasized as the explanation of the problem described above is the student’s own actions and responsibility. A statement made by the well-known psychologist Carl Rogers that is often cited is, “I know I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only provide an environment in which he can learn.” The most obvious interpretation of his words is that a teacher cannot make his students acquire facts, skills, and techniques; instead, the students need to do the acquiring themselves while teachers can only provide their students with the conditions which make this possible. I believe that this interpretation is too limited, however; in my view stressing students’ agency has little effect when the focus remains on specific knowledge, strategies and techniques.
Concrete strategies and techniques, upon which many student coaching courses are founded, are by definition inadequate. A student will eventually face circumstances that are not discussed in class. The presented techniques are not modelled after these situations; instead, the individual will have to remodel the acquired techniques to fit every unique situation. This requires more than the technique alone. The student needs a theoretical framework which also contains the practical knowledge. Only with a thorough understanding of this framework will they be able to make the right decisions in order to match technique and circumstance.
Real change is necessary
Acquiring skills and techniques in a controlled environment is a definition of learning that is too limited. True learning is synonymous to change. Change is something that leaves its marks on you. The word implies something fundamental and definitive as opposed to something superficial and temporary. Whenever something is truly learned, it will not be forgotten. Real change can be adapted over time but you cannot undo it. Roger’s statement can be interpreted very differently when we read ‘learning’ to mean ‘changing.’ People do not change just like that. They do not do it easily and you cannot force it. They will only change when they recognize its significance. It is my view that a teacher’s or a coach’ task is to create an environment in which students can experience this significance in a profound way.
The right environment
In all of my coaching techniques I provide a theoretical framework from which I want to work. I appeal to the participants to exchange and discuss their ideas and perspectives about the framework. This makes it possible to adapt notions in such a way that practical strategies and techniques become appropriate. This situation is the environment that makes learning possible. Whenever the tuning of perspectives is omitted, it is not all that certain that a permanent effect will be achieved.
Understanding alone is insufficient
We aim to help develop students to master their own circumstances. In order to achieve that goal they must gain an understanding of the correct insights and backgrounds that are fundamental to those circumstances. And even this often proves insufficient. If they want to be able to deal with all the unpredictable and unique aspects in practice, students have to accept and trust the validity of the insights and backgrounds under scrutiny completely. That is to say, in our decision making we always rely on those things we trust.
A student used to reading everything might want to take a course about strategies of studying because he is beginning to have trouble keeping up with the amount of text he needs to study. However, the techniques in the course only become useful as soon as het understands and accept that he needs to skip information in his reading. As long as the student clings to the belief that he must cram everything, he will be unable to give up his initial strategy of reading and rereading.
Back to study drives
There are many misconceptions about this subject. Many people believe that motivation is something that you have or do not have; it is a mood you are in. You do not have conscious control over it. Motivational problems are often interpreted as a lack of motivation. One feels unmotivated to get going with something. Motivational problems seem, to these people, almost a kind of illness one suffers and which needs to be cured.
Motivation, however, is not a mysterious condition. It is misleading, too, to speak of a lack of motivation as though one enters a spontaneous state of depression. Both interpretations present the person in question unjustly as powerless, subjected to his emotional whims. This perspective only inspires a search for cures. One person finds his blessing in rigid discipline, another finds it in a system of rewards and yet another in imposing penalties. Some take a course or attend a lecture hoping for a magical formula.
It is deeply rooted in us
Such wishes constitute false hope. Study drive, or the motivation to learn, is something fundamental and is deeply rooted in us. You are never unmotivated; that is to say, you always do something and it is always motivated. From this perspective it is impossible to have a lack of motivation. Instead, there are other motivations or drives which are more dominant.
Therefore it is my view that people who struggle with motivational problems have too little self-knowledge that cannot be compensated with tips and tricks. This is the point I try to get across to the participants in my courses. That is why I spend considerable time discussing a number of fundamental matters. Why do we study? How do we study (the learning process) and what are the properties of the elements we actually learn (the learning product)? These theoretical frameworks are far removed from the practical tools that many are expecting initially. But as soon as one understands them and accepts them one will find that focusing on self-knowledge logically leads to motivated choices. In the end, there is nothing more practical than a good theory.