“Teacher! I have no ideas!”

By Matthew Cowan, LSU

We’re always getting requests from students for advice on how to come up with ideas for essays, particularly as submission deadlines wheel round. It can be a tough one to deal with. How do you advise someone on how to come up with something as abstract as an idea? Telling them to go away and read comes to mind, and so does telling them to just think. But about what? By doing this you risk losing them for good. It’s not a smart move given it sometimes takes a lot of courage for a student to deviate from routine to visit your office to ask. It could do damage. Research into first year experience backs this up. Don’t get me wrong, however. Students certainly need jolting sometimes. Some are genuinely slack, and have poor time management skills, but there might be underlying reasons for this, like simply hating the course their parents have enrolled them in, which is prevalent on our campus. Referring this group of students to someone qualified to listen to them helps immensely. Then there are the students who just don’t know what to do. Many from Vietnamese high schools have never written essays before and they simply need guidance and patience. But requests for help with idea generation may also be red flagging other weaknesses, like reading skills. Sometimes our Vietnamese students might be reluctant to openly admit this. So be mindful of this. Reading requires engaging with a text in multiple ways, and by not giving students the time they deserve may be denying them the opportunity to develop a number of fundamental skills for success at university and life beyond.

Many of our students seeking help with ideas are first year students. For many of these guys it’s the first time they’ve been asked to make academic decisions for themselves. They get anxious because they equate high GPAs with success beyond university, and success in the future means money, right? It must be nerve racking. This is not characteristic of just our first year students though. Our second and third year students have difficulty coming up with ideas too. But don’t we all? When was the last time you had to write an essay on a topic you had little or no background knowledge in? Where was your starting point? Unfortunately the word on the street is that many of our students place great faith, maybe too much at times, in their friends for advice. And often we find that it’s wrong. We offer a much better service for this called SLAMs where high achieving students, trained as mentors, can provide advice and perspectives on subjects that we can’t possibly provide. Sometimes it may be that students are simply too embarrassed to ask for help, or they simply don’t see any need to ask for it. Alarmingly, some of our own research is beginning to indicate the latter. Another interesting fact is that students from some degree programs here are more likely to ask for advice than are students from other degree programs. Why this is the case remains unclear and would make for some interesting future research (maybe one of you reading this could help us with it). Another intriguing investigation would be into why so few male students choose to take advantage of our services. At times we’re baffled.

Based on the students we see, many haven’t developed a habit, or like, for reading. Vietnam doesn’t appear to have a reading culture like you might see in other Asian countries such as Japan. When out and about in Vietnam, locals appear to be reading nothing other than local newspapers and text messages. Students attending our workshops confirm this. They don’t appear to appreciate the varied reasons for reading nor do they seem to understand that one of the most important ones is for enjoyment. They tend to associate reading with being task oriented where there’s always an expectation to identify the author’s argument, seek the support the author provides, uncover biases and demonstrate their understanding in a 1,500 word essay. This is a worthwhile skill to have but it’s not everything. There seems to be a misconception that anything other than an academic text, common interest magazines for example, can’t help the development of academic language and learning. Students certainly look surprised when we suggest they pick up a mag or click onto one as a way of developing their reading.

At this time of year we’re seeing a lot of first semester students attending workshops for essay writing. Most of them have come from learning environments where there hasn’t been a requirement to complete a substantial body of work such as an essay and they tell us their biggest concerns are ideas, structuring and citing. They are an extremely important bunch of students to get through to as the skills and confidence they develop at this stage can really set them up for the rest of their university experience. It’s the right time to harness the energy and motivation they bring along that can dissipate as they head deeper into university life. In workshops, one of the first points I make is that by virtue of living they actually bring a substantial amount of knowledge with them when they walk in the door. It introduces them to the important idea of prior knowledge and begins to address their concerns about a perceived lack of ideas. As an example, it’s enlightening for them, and a relief, to realise how much commerce students actually know about the theory of Emotional Labour when they’re encouraged to reflect on their experiences as a customer and to think about why they may have been treated in a particular way when they last went shopping, even though they’ve never studied it before. The theory of Emotional Labour introduces commerce students to how sales assistants might be required to display certain emotions, like smiling, in order to encourage customers to behave in a certain way, that is, to spend money. In a very short space of time, these students go from thinking they know absolutely nothing about a theory to feeling like they at least have a starting point from which to launch into planning for their essay. At around this time they realise too they actually have an opinion on it even though they hadn’t given it any real conscious thought before. A simple yes/no question requiring the raising of hands as an answer quickly confirms this. They all have opinions on things that are important to them the most, so it’s just a matter of teasing it out of them and waiting for the light in their eyes to brighten when they make the connection.

So this is the juncture at which I encourage students to start moving away from this preoccupation with the need to have ideas towards paying more attention to the opinion that they’ve now become conscious of. They’re encouraged to look inwardly at first to examine why they have this opinion. They can achieve this by reflecting on what experiences they’ve had, what they’ve been told and by who, which can then be juxtaposed with what they’ve covered in lectures to date. Their attention is then drawn to what they see around them on a daily basis from which a realisation forms that it’s also actually a really reliable source to draw upon for ideas. They’re also asked to look around the room at their classmates highlighting they too are an excellent resource for opinions, thoughts and ideas. They tend to be sceptical at first, but once it’s established none of them are clones and that they all actually come from quite diverse backgrounds from within Vietnam, they realise not everyone sees the world from the same perspective as they do. They suddenly begin to realise that the cupboard isn’t actually bare after all and that they’ve not only got something to work with, but have something to offer others too. All this without even laying eyes on a text. This is powerful.

Another important point I try to get across is the notion of developing a voice when writing, which aims to address not only concerns with a lack of ideas but also of citing. Many students fly blind when it comes to knowing when and when not to cite an author. In Vietnam for example, citing authors’ ideas is not common practice. One way to start addressing this goes back to reading. Our students often fail to engage properly with readings. There are better ways to engage with readings than simply highlighting and underlining key words and replacing them with synonyms and calling it paraphrasing. Pausing for a moment, thinking about what’s just been read, understanding what it means, offsetting it with opinions already held and simply writing down thoughts as they come to mind is much better practice than just lifting text from one document and placing it into another and hoping Turn It In doesn’t pick it up. I tell our students that opinions that materialise from others’ ideas should of course be cited as they have an academic responsibility to do so. But then I make it clear that a student’s evaluation of others’ ideas and opinions deserve to be claimed as their own because they are demonstrating what is highly sought after by our lecturers – evidence of original thought. Original thought is characterised by a student’s ability to demonstrate their understanding of a theory by applying it to a particular context, preferably a familiar one, and then evaluating its effectiveness or relevance to that context. It’s higher order learning at its best. While challenging and painful for all involved, in the end it’s worth it when you know a student is walking off glad they made the detour to your office.

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