Its debatable…Speak Up!

January 21, 2009

Is being successful at Forensics too “hard”?

Filed under: Debate,Forensics - General,Motivation — bk2nocal @ 12:29 am

I love speech and debate.  I loved it when I competed in it and I still love it as a coach/director.  One of the things I love about it is the challenge.  Although things have changed a lot since I competed (some things have been made easier, while others have become more difficult), I still think there is a lot in it that is enjoyable.  But, I find that, at least regionally, there are fewer and fewer who enjoy speech and debate for the challenge.  Many find it likable for other reasons:  the travel, the social interaction, the ability to talk about things they want to talk about on a near-weekly basis…but, few seem to really thrive on the challenge.

It seems like many students today want a shortcut to success in the competitive (and classroom) realm.  Maybe it is my sports background, where I remember being rewarded for working out hard enough to build up enough lactic acid to make myself throw up.  Disgusting, but a challenge all the same.  The gatorade commercials show that this is still the mentality in sports – to work through the pain.  Even to thrive on the pain.  But, in academia or intellectual competitions, it seems like its quite the opposite for most.  Most people’s questions revolve around finding out what the absolute LEAST amount of work they can do in order to achieve their goals – or achieve the minimum acceptable level of achievement for them.

I feel like motivating students to achieve more, to want more and to focus on something other than finding the easiest possible path to achieve the most average level of success is part of my job.  But, its exhausting sometimes to want more for your students than they want for themselves.  So, how do you get around this?  How can I do a better job of motivating my students to motivate themselves?

I am familiar with goal-setting and I definitely try to have the students set some realistic goals each semester.  But, I feel like I fall behind on staying on top of tracking their movement towards those goals.  I guess I always considered that to be their jobs.  My job was to provide them with guidance in reaching those goals, and their job is to do the stuff that needs to be done.  But, maybe I’m not realizing the inexperience they have with reaching goals and working “through the pain”.  Maybe I’m not realizing how easily distracted they are by tech, social networking, extra curricular activities, etc. they are.

So, this semester, I’m adopting a new tracking regime.  Each WEEK the students will have to write down a SPECIFIC and REALISTIC goal/objective to achieve that week and get it signed off by a coach.  This can be something as simple as doing all necessary revisions on a speech or researching a new affirmative or reading up on and answering some key questions about counterplan theory.  It will be a PERSONALIZED goal that can easily be tied to the overall semester goals they have set for themselves.  The next week, they will turn in/show the results of the work they did on that goal and again, will have that signed off by a coach and put in a file, and establish a new goal for the coming week based on their progress.  Although this is going to create a little more work for the coaches and require some organization of file folders for each student and it means that as coaches we will have to be on top of what each individual is working on/needs to work on, I think in the end it will make our jobs easier and make the students more realistic in their expectations and work habits.  Hopefully, once we do this for a few semesters, it will become more individual responsibility than coach responsibility, but for now, I think we just need to take on the additional responsibility to help guide the students more.

I’m wondering if I should just make this something that is tied to grades and competitive success, or if I should provide some additional incentives.  I always worry about providing too much external incentives, which I believe trades off with internal incentives/motivation.  I already think that students are too tied to grades and not tied enough to LEARNING.  But, that is not something I’m going to change overnight.

So, anyone out there find a successful way to motivate students to take personal responsibility for their success?  Do you think this will work?  Do you think that I am stereotyping students too much?  I realize there are exceptions to this – I definitely have a handful of those exceptions on my team.  But, I am now concerned with getting the rest of the students to that same place…or at least somewhere in the same region!



  1. Great post – but I have two points to make:
    1) I think the personalized approach is the best. For a few years now I’ve been asking students after tournaments to review all their ballots and write down three things they did well and three things they could improve that they noticed recurred on multiple ballots. Then I let them know that these are the things to work on and IF we see these things after the next tournament the student is not working hard enough. I think last semester it was a great success, many of the the things identified at the beginning of the semester (eye contact, projection, memorization) did not appear on ballots at fall champs. I made sure to SAVE all these sheets and at the end of the semester we reviewed them – much to the astonishment of my students who realized how much they had grown over the past four months.

    2) I think we have to cognizant of the fact that our students today are very different than students of prior generations – especially at the community college level – to a student, EVERY one of my students has at least a part time job. Almost every student is partially paying for their education. Many are on financial aid – this is a lot of stress students are facing on an everyday basis. While I applaud them for participating in forensics I think it has to be tempered by the fact that these students are very very busy in their lives. That is not to excuse not doing work but some level of appreciation of the difference in workload/life demands is important.

    Related to this, of course, is how you define success. But that is another topic altogether =)

    great post and enjoying your views!

    Comment by Danny — January 21, 2009 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

  2. I smile as I read your comments, because I could have written exactly the same thing 15 or 20 years ago (shakes fist in air, muttering, “kids these days!.”). I found that my most successful competitors generally fell into 2 categories.
    1.The natural comedians, actors and writers often did well because forensics gave them a built-in audience and an opportunity to celebrate their love of the artform.
    2.The other group who generally did well over time was made up of those who were able to make the connection between the skills they learned in forensics and their own long-term career goals. Note that short term goals – like graduating from college or finishing the units for a minor – often get in the way of overall forensics excellence because of competing demands for attention. But the ability to keep eyes on the long-term prize – regardless if the competitor was a rookie or a seasoned pro – seemed to make a big difference in work ethic. You are an excellent excellent of a student who fell into this category. 🙂

    Comment by Kathy — January 22, 2009 @ 9:20 am | Reply

  3. Great comments from both Danny and Kathy (who btw I found to be a great motivator when I competed for her). I also think its important to recognize the importance of peers in the process though. I know when I was competing for Kathy at Chico, the culture on the team was one of hard work leading to success. So, although there were some people who did not always put in 100% to forensics, the vast majority of the traveling competitors were working hard and expected those around them to work hard. This was a motivational factor on its own. But, I recognize what Danny is saying about the constant life demands of many students today. I just think its a matter of prioritization and recognizing that each individual will have a different level of commitment, but teaching them that they will also have much different outcomes based on those commitment levels. But, I do like what Kathy says about making connections to the long-term. I have not spent enough time on that…I need to talk more about graduate/law school, professional benefits, networking benefits, etc.

    Comment by bk2nocal — March 27, 2009 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

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