Expert Opinion

Poor retention = restless, agitated students: Discuss.

In today’s Beckett Trends post, Professor Jim McKenna, Professor of Sport at Carnegie School of Sport, looks at addiction and how it applies to our daily lives.

So, you’re not an addict? Think again! My interest in cognitive biases – the way we make quick ‘decisions’ without having thought about the key issues - has led me to address addiction and how it applies to our daily lives. I don’t mean the usual applications for that word. So, not addiction to drink, drugs, cigarettes, inactivity and/or over-eating; the usual New Year concerns. I’m thinking more about addiction to ideas and addiction to how we generate our ideas.

This is important for a number of reasons, not least because they are all underpinned by the action of the same neurotransmitter; dopamine.  While most think that dopamine is a reward chemical, it is better understood as the chemical handling ‘craving and saving’. What that means is that anything we crave is driven by its action. That action also reminds us where the reward can be found (saving), so we readily return there.

Addiction can be used to address how we are in the face of recurrent – and often quite drastic – problems. Think of the challenges posed by weak student retention. On the one hand are the addictions that these students experience. Let me suggest some, and in that process, suggest how we (academics) may have become central to driving what undermines many students’ chances of finishing their degrees. Importantly, let's focus on what an over-reliance on short, possibly dramatic, teaching activities may encourage.

One suggestion is these approaches encourage excitement, which is distinct from calm-happiness (aka ‘deep work’). Excitement is driven by dopamine, which means it can never be satisfied, only satiated by more excitement. Worse, progressively less personal investment is made to secure a ‘hit’, meaning that either excitement drops or ever-more exciting activities/experiences must be provided. Relying on excitement, therefore, produces restless students. Assuming the analogy to addiction holds, then the craving remains no matter how well provided for. Students’ restlessness cannot be satisfied through excitement, only pursued, so creating a downward spiral. In that understanding, might our ‘addiction’ (if that’s what it is) to ‘stunts’ (if that’s what they are), be driving at least a part of the retention ‘problem’?

Hold that idea and set it against the experiences recently reported to me by an academic who used our programme of ‘Shut Up and Write’ (SU&W) with their students. SU&W involves 20-25 minutes of silent (Shut Up!) writing interspersed by short 5-10 minute breaks. It is increasingly rare for today’s students to be required to write solidly, in silence, in 20-minute bursts during group sessions, making this a new activity for many students.


While many (restless?) students found this difficult at the outset, they have settled into it; it takes nerve to stick with it in the face of their moans and groans about how difficult it is and questions like ‘Why can’t I use my mobile to look it up?’, while all the while feeling the sharp pricking that our other addiction – to NSS scores - imposes year-round. Now, instead of ‘craving’ the entertainment of 3-minute YouTube videos or ‘snap’ voting about topics they don’t grasp and/or haven’t read about, they crave not only the satisfaction of producing ~150 words of their own making, but also the ‘proof’ of the personal progress those words signal. They have learned to crave the experience of personal progress and they know where to find it (save).

One colleague recently reported to me, with immense pride and satisfaction, how her students were now valuing her sessions of 20-minute writing and 5-minute breaks. Replacing drop-in sessions that attracted no-one, the structured SU&W sessions she introduced regularly bring in 25 (of 27) of her class. Quoting one student, she said, ‘I’ve done more in one hour of working like this than in a whole day working in the library.’

Try it, but only after you’ve been personally impressed by the quality of the SU&W experience (dopamine works for you too!). That experience is important because it may help break your own dependence on other approaches. The deep work that SU&W entails is important, yet rarely practiced or refined. It helps to replace student restlessness with calm-happiness; it does the same for harassed academics. It also displaces dissatisfaction to bring the joy of personal progress; students and academics will experience this together and that’s got to be important and enriching. Who among us won’t be happy about that? Indeed, as a result, who won’t crave more of it throughout 2018 and beyond?

Professor James McKenna

Professor of Sport / Carnegie School Of Sport

A professor of Physical Activity and Health, Jim studies behaviour change at a range of levels; individual, social and whole community. He is Director of the Active Lifestyles research centre in the School of Sport.

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