Many journal articles have been written regarding the topic of making learning fun as a way to engage students. However, with the decline of basic competencies seen in today’s student, one has to ask if this is the most appropriate approach to student engagement.
Richard Arum, Professor of Sociology at New York University and co-author of Academically Adrift, says, “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high.” Have incentives like this led to a lack of academic rigor? Arum’s study found that 35 percent of college students reported studying five hours per week or less while 50 percent reported not having a single class requiring 20 pages of writing in their previous semester. When measuring critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills, the study found that three semesters of college education had only led to an improvement equating to a seven percentile point gain for the average student completing their sophomore year.
While this data is only a small piece of a much larger puzzle regarding student learning outcomes, it is reasonable to suggest a correlation between instructor evaluation methods and lack of academic rigor. Although this is not the only variable influencing student learning outcomes, it is a sound argument that a system that incentivizes instructors to be “liked” by their students may pressure instructors to focus on how they can be better entertainers rather than better educators. I am not suggesting that learning should not be fun but I’d much rather see a system that has educators more concerned with the progress of each student vs. their popularity among them. The real question is how do educators tap into students’ internal motivations to learn? How do we get students to understand the connection between the classes they don’t find “fun” and their own success? The problem with fun is that this concept of engaging students through the entertainment value educators can provide while facilitating a lesson, focuses on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivators.
Educators must work hard to communicate the relevance of the topics they teach to their audience in such a manner that allows students to see how the topic is personally important to them. This will be different for every learner and quite frankly, some just won’t see it. In my opinion, it is much better to focus on getting students to understand the significance of what’s being taught relative to their goals rather than focusing on their enjoyment. I hated Calculus when I was in high school and college and swore it was pointless because I was never going to use it. I was right about one thing – I don’t ever use calculus in my daily life. However, I was wrong about another thing – calculus wasn’t just about the mathematical principles I was learning; it was about improving my problem solving ability, a skill I use daily. Calculus will never be fun to me, but because I understand the relevance to my own personal development, I get why I should care and why I should try. The best part about being an educator is when you know a student gets it. Rather than pandering to a student’s desire to be entertained, try slapping them in the face with the reality that their bosses won’t care if they are having fun as much as they’ll care about them producing results.