Guest Contributor: Dr. Joel A. English.

Isaac Newton’s first law of motion applies to students: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” A big part of our job as first-year college teachers is to get students to move. We have to become that unbalanced force that motivates a student to respond, react, argue, get irritated, aha, fix, or solve. Our job is to figure out what motivates them, and use that motivational fulcrum to leverage movement.

The problem is, we know what motivates “kids these days,” and we hate it. What motivates the current generation of college students (Generation Y) is the what’s in it for me phenomenon. Most of our current students bring to college a cynical, folded-arm attitude, which silently stares at us, as if to say, “until I find something relevant to my immediate interests, useful to my short-term goals (and I mean short), or at least a little bit funny, you’re not going to get me to budge. I can wait you out.” The power of inertia is strong with these ones, and I’m not sure it’s worth fighting it.

What I’m suggesting is that we re-think our curriculum in a way that makes what we want them to do more clearly relevant to our students—to speed up the movement, to speed up the beginning of the learning process. The more quickly we demonstrate relevance of our content, our learning objectives, and even the processes by which we teach, the more quickly students will jump aboard with us.

Two stories to illustrate this. This summer, at the Ohio Center for Broadcasting, a very small class of four students enrolled into a section of our Language Arts course. Prior to the course beginning, one of the students suffered an accident and broke her foot badly, and another student went into early labor and unexpectedly delivered her child early. Neither of the students would be able to attend class as scheduled, and running the course with only the two remaining students was educationally (and financially) problematic. The instructor happily offered for the students to take the course online rather than in the classroom, and in the online environment, all four students would be able to participate.

How do you think the students responded? True to form, the new mother and the injured student were thrilled. They would be able to recuperate without any delay in their education, and they jumped online that night and began their online course enthusiastically. What about the other two? They complained that it wasn’t fair that they would be asked to change modes of instruction just because of the other two; they complained that online classes are taught by anonymous people who don’t know you; one of them threatened to sue! Why the drastic differences in attitude? Because of relevance. Because the online course option was a pertinent solution for the two students (who logged on immediately from their beds). The “unbalanced force” of relevance moved them quickly into action. But because the online option wasn’t necessarily an immediate need, remedy, or request from the other two, they folded their arms (literally) and said, “what’s in it for me”? (Not literally.)

Here’s another example of students being motivated quickly into action when bumped into by relevance. I stole this one from my friend, Constance Staley, director of a freshman student success program at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and author of the FOCUS on College Success series. Constance oversees a program that offers over 100 sections per year of a first-year experience program, where all incoming students must enroll in a course called “Gateway Program Seminar.” What do today’s incoming freshmen think when they read a course title like “Gateway Program Seminar”? They think: Great. Someone thinks I need a gateway program seminar. Let’s see this class break my zoned-in concentration on whatever picture floats to the top of Instagram!

But Constance tried something different this year. She teaches one section of the course, and instead of naming the course “Gateway Program Seminar,” she named her section, “Serenity Now.” When online enrollment for the freshman seminars went live, “Serenity Now” filled up within two hours, well before any other section of “Gateway Program Seminar” filled. Why? Students saw something in that course title that motivated them. Whether they said to themselves, “I could really use some self-reflection, meditation, and peace in my life,” or whether they simply chuckled at the Seinfeld reference, it was enough to motivate action, to apply unbalanced force, to get students moving.

As irritating as it may be that the current generation of students require seeing personal relevance before they are willing to buy in to just about anything, one could argue that they’re asking a pretty important question that the Traditionalists and Generation X usually didn’t ask of higher education: What’s the real value here? They may be smug and cynical, but it might actually be healthy for us to think about the components of our courses, the platforms on which we deliver, and in Constance’s case, even the title of a course, and consider what value might be communicated to students. Am I talking about treating students like customers? Well, they sure do act like consumers when they make decisions about the value of our courses, and they certainly are paying the bill—at least at some point—for the process of becoming educated.

Maybe I wouldn’t go as far as to condone an education-as-commodity system, but I certainly know that today’s college students only dig in when they have identified personal relevance in what we’re offering them. I don’t find much use in fighting it.


Dr. Joel English serves as the Director of Distance Learning for the Ohio Centers for Broadcasting, Illinois Centers for Broadcasting, Colorado Media School, and Miami Media School, a family of schools dedicated to education in radio, television, and internet media broadcasting.  Dr. English is also the Chairman of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, where he has chaired the Distance Education Committee and served as a Commissioner since 2009.  In former positions, Dr. English served on the executive team at Centura College, where he oversaw distance learning and school operations at several campuses, and he was formerly an Assistant Professor of English and Distance Learning at Old Dominion University.  Dr. English recently published Plugged In: Succeeding as an Online Learner through Cengage Learning, as an extension of his dedication to supporting student success within online courses and programs.  Dr. English holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Ball State University, and an M.A. and B.A. in Technical and Expository Writing from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.


How do you demonstrate the relevance of your course to your students? Have they seen “what’s in it for them,” and shared that with you? Describe your experience in the comments.