When help doesn’t help

In which the author proposes that total student effort cannot be increased


My university uses a web platform software called Moodle. Moodle does for free what other software can do for a price: provide an easy way for instructors to make material available online. It is often used for courses that are entirely online but a lot of profs use it to supplement their on-campus courses. This year, I decided to try it out. I’m beginning to regret it.

The main thing I use Moodle for is to post images based on the Powerpoint slides I use in class. As I keep telling my students, getting the slides form the web is not substitute for coming to class because the slides give only the basic ideas and key terms. They are there to provide reminders in cased you missed something or wrote something down wrong. Despite all that, today I learned that some students have stopped taking notes since they can just get the slides. Then I made a sighing noise.

I’m beginning to fear that this is a pattern: students struggle with something, professor does something to help; students don’t try as hard because they have the help. If I’m right, this phenomenon creates a sort of upper-limit on learning since for every pedagogical action there will be an equal and opposite laziness.  Allow students to rewrite their papers and they do less work on the first version. Allow them class time to work on research and they do less research outside of class. Make assignments flexible and they leave everything to the end of he year. In short, there will always be a constant total effort from any group of students, and nothing can be done to increase it. Call it a theorem of maximum effort.

I hope I’m wrong about this, and I’m sure in particular cases it’s certainly not. But in the grand scheme of things, I suspect that Pettigrew’s Theorem of Maximum Effort will prove to be a law.


When help doesn’t help

  1. Theorem of Maximum Effort – I like that. I really do think that there’s only so much a person can do in a day. Many different course requirements weight on a students time (unfortunately sometimes a program requires a student to take a class he’s not so interested in, burdening the classes he IS interested in). Then there’s those pesky friends and family, if I did away with all those people I’d probably have an easier time putting a stellar effort in each course. Students also trying to work at the same time might be insane.

    Of course every student has different priorities as well. No doubt there are ‘Ds get degrees’ students out there, but most students I’m talking to are putting in an earnest effort. Laziness isn’t the word I’d give it, but I can understand why a professor might get a little frustrated when despite all his efforts the results still seem to be the same.

    All these gripes sound so cliched, it’s probably just a hazard built in to the system we’ve all signed onto. Though I think some program requirements could be dispensed with (‘general liberal education requirements’ can go to hell IMO).

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