Why Do They Just Give Up?

There is a new and disturbing trend that I’m seeing among students. They sometimes give up before even trying. I didn’t see anything like this before but in the last couple of years this started to happen.

Last semester, for example, my most brilliant student – really, an extremely bright guy who obviously enjoyed the course and was very much into learning – didn’t hand in one of the essays.

“Where is your essay?” I asked.

“Nah, I decided to sit this one out,” he said.

I thought that he might have been busy or overwhelmed with other assignments, so I suggested he take more time. Then, I suggested he come to my office and we work on the essay together. Then, I told him he could have until the end of the semester to do it. (I’m always very accommodating this way.) But he refused even to try. This was not a doctoral dissertation, people. It was a 2 page essay analyzing a text we read and discussed in class.

All the student had to say, though, was, “I don’t think I will have much to say about the topic, so I’m just letting this one go.”

Or take yesterday, for example. We are preparing for the mini-quiz, and I handed out activities to help students prepare because, as I’d warned them, this will be a tough mini-quiz. One of the students looked at the exercise, pushed it away and just sat there.

“Why are you not doing the exercise?” I asked.

“It looks too hard,” the student said. “I’ll just wait for the answers.”

This is a language class, so knowing the answers that other people came up with is of zero help.

I’m extremely baffled by this phenomenon. You are sitting in class, anyways, so why not at least try to do the exercise? It surely is more fun than just sitting there, staring into space. How can anybody give up without even trying? And I know these students. There is absolutely nothing preventing them from doing the assignments quite well if they, at least, tried.

These are not rich kids. The absolute majority is paying for their own education, and life will not be easy for them after they graduate. So this tendency to not even try makes absolutely no sense.

Does anybody have an explanation? When this happens, I don’t even do anything because it is so strange to me that I have no idea how to address it. Maybe if I understood the reasons for this, I could find a way to deal with it.

40 thoughts on “Why Do They Just Give Up?”

  1. I did that once. I was extremely depressed during that time period and I felt that anything I wrote wouldn’t be good enough. In reality, I probably could have gotten a good grade on that essay but I wasn’t being logical at that time.

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  2. Often, children are taught, both by parents and by peers, that they are not good enough to succeed. This is true in lower social classes, especially. So when an important task looks hard and challenging, it is less threatening to skip it. If they succeeded at something hard, it would undermine their sense of who they are completely. Some people are determined to prove their parents and peers wrong; they will usually stop at nothing. But those who internalize this indoctrination are very hard to reach. There is a country song with the lyrics “Don’t get above your raisings.”

    When I was a child I sometimes shared grand ideas that I had with other people (mostly other boys, but a few girls, too) and was always told something like: “Yeah, you’ll do wonders and eat rotten cucumbers.” I eventually learned to keep quiet about wonderful ideas, and gradually, therefore, had fewer of them.

    Eventually, only mathematics was left for me as an area I could shine in, where no one was able to discourage me. There were times in college when I was able to get motivated to do required work at the last minute and finish required work in non-mathematics courses; since I knew that otherwise I would be prevented from doing mathematics, either because of not getting into grad school, or more likely, being drafted and sent to Vietnam.

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    1. This is fascinating, David. I always thought this was a country with the American Dream mentality of “work till you drop, try and try again, and it will pay off eventually” and “life is about struggling, sacrificing and making an effort.” I had no idea there was this other philosophy of being.

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      1. I will tell you something. I wasn’t raised that way — I was raised the old American way, where you can do anything if you try. Failure wasn’t seen as good, but as long as you had at least tried you got credit for that — there was none of that “see, you shouldn’t have even bothered!” Not trying was worse than failure. Now when I was a kid all I wanted to do was stay in my room and read, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t being encouraged to do anything or told that I shouldn’t even try anything, it was just because I was lazy. As a matter of fact I always felt guilty whenever I fobbed off an assignment or something because I was reluctant, for a variety of reasons (mostly fear of failure combined with an unwillingness to work).

        But in my course through life I began to notice a change: people not only started not caring about trying to do something, they actively discouraged others. Mockery and amusement at the failure of others became a sport, and
        “look at the stupid idiot, did he actually think he’d succeed at that?” became the attitude. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started to notice this, but it was sometime in the 90s. when the economy started to take hits. Then one day I was talking to my then-fiance’s family and I told them I was thinking of going for a Master’s degree at a nearby college once I finished my Bachelor’s. Well, to my shock, my fiance’s father was very disparaging of my plan. I was stunned, especially considering how he’d previously told me that he admired the way I’d gone back to college after a hiatus of some twenty years. But apparently I was only to be praised for getting my BA — an MA was obviously overreaching. This was sometime in 2000 or 2001.

        Anyway, I got out of that relationship, and eventually quit college because I’d burned out. I don’t know how much of a factor my fiance’s father’s discouragement had — none at all, really. It was other things — classes scheduled during my work hours, loss of impetus, etc. But I think a lot of people are just getting burnt out by what I call the Culture of Discouragement that has taken over the country. Imagine: the news media is full of nothing but how much we suck, the entertainment media is dominated by shows that mock ordinary people and have them be emotional wrecks for the titillation of strangers (and we call it “reality tv”!) and anyone who tries to change the status quo gets mocked mercilessly. So people are just shutting down.

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  3. I’ve seen something like this before, I think that it’s called “learned helplessness” in some circumstances. I have a mental block like it when it comes to doing math problems, due to a long and complicated history with struggling to learn mathematics. The problem-solving part of my brain simply shuts down, because I’m mentally recoiling from years of trying and failing, and being scolded for the failure.
    But to avoid that, I just don’t enrol in math courses. I’ve never heard of anything like what you describe, where students in the subject do it at random. I admit during busy times I’ve skived off assignments or even days in class before, for the sake of time management, so I could finish other tasks which were more pressing, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.

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    1. I’ve seen something like this before, I think that it’s called “learned helplessness” in some circumstances (nomina)

      Yes, it reminds me of how elephants are tied up with just a rope. When they were younger it was a chain that could not be broken so they stopped trying. By the time they got older all that was needed was the feel of a chain(the rope sufficed) and they wouldnt even bother trying, though they could have easily broken free. 😦

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    2. ” I admit during busy times I’ve skived off assignments or even days in class before, for the sake of time management, so I could finish other tasks which were more pressing, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.”

      – I’m honestly the most understanding prof in the world when it comes to handing things in late and needing extra time to get everything done. I would have understood had yesterday’s student simply failed to show up for class. But once you have wasted time and gas to get yourself to the classroom, what is the point of just sitting there? He wasn’t doing anything else, like texting or doing a different assignment or even sleeping. He just sat there. Which has got to be quite boring.

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  4. I tend to agree with Bellamy’s comments, although I think these behaviors can be prevalent in any social class.

    I recall I stopped attending a calculus class and then flunked it given that I was a no show, but that was mainly due to carrying 20 units a quarter and the fact that during this time my department (major) was experiencing a lot of internal conflict and turmoil. This created a very shitty environment ripe for very non-professional professors demonstrating poor attitudes and taking it out on their students. I was one of the lucky ones. I had this stupid jerk of a professor who was also my advisor. He had a very poor attitude and a lot of issues. I recall fighting with the jerk, leaving in tears given his very inappropriate comments. I wound up having to retake the class, extending my time in school, but when I took it I felt less stessed as well. I also excelled in the class earning top grades and this time the male professor who taught it was helpful and supportive. When I earned the top grade for one of his tests, I recall the look on his face and how pleased he seemed when he gave it to me and then emphasized that there was no reason why I couldn’t make those grades all the time. In fact, that was one of the few and rare times that I ever experienced a positive interaction from a teacher/professor.

    I recall that advisor and can still feel contempt and scorn for the man given his behaviors, and the jerk was in my department, which meant that I had no choice, but to interact with him. What a punishing pric! Sorry–sometimes I just angers me having to cope with someone like that and trying so hard to give my all to my studies. I was told by some of my classmates that he liked a test answer I gave and proceeded to read it to them, when he met with many of the classmates for beer at the end of the school year. I wasn’t there as there was absolutely no way in hell that I was going to go out for beers with anyone and be around that idiot.

    Sorry–you don’t sound like that kind of professor at all. Back to this issue, I do agree with Bellamy’s comments. Just keep trying to be encouraging. I was always so starved for encouragement. A crumb here and there went a long way for me.

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    1. ” Just keep trying to be encouraging. I was always so starved for encouragement. A crumb here and there went a long way for me.”

      – Ah, and here are all these people telling me that I don’t need to preface the criticisms of students’ work with praise for everything they do well. I knew I was right!!

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      1. I think your gut response is always a good one and I would defer to that, despite other people’s input. I just gave an example of my situation, but I think from what I read here that you are fully aware that situations are individual and you are not like the idiot that I described above. It’s really difficult to know exactly what is going on with this particular student–he could have emotional issues that he is dealing with too, depending on what kind of experiences one has they could be reluctant to spill the beans on why they are behaving as they do, even if they are coping with more serious issues. I would probably try different strategies.

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      2. It always softens the blow to have bits of praise accompany criticism. And I prefer thorough, honest, encouraging criticism over vague comments which are blandly positive but can be interpreted as passive aggressive.
        I once turned my brain into a twist of sailor’s knots over a B+ paper I got back that had no final remarks on it from my professor, other than “A good effort”. I was starved for information about how to get an A next time, but never got any feedback from the professor on what was keeping me from reaching it, so I stopped giving my very best, since I figured she wouldn’t ever tell me what was missing. My grade didn’t go down, but I didn’t get as much out of the course as I should have.

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        1. “I once turned my brain into a twist of sailor’s knots over a B+ paper I got back that had no final remarks on it from my professor, other than “A good effort””

          – Of course, it’s very time and energy-consuming to go through students’ writing sentence by sentence and offer copious comments. But if one doesn’t enjoy doing it, I doubt one should even become a teacher.

          I once had a prof who wrote on my essay, “With some serious reworking, this could be submitted for publication.” I hounded him for weeks to discuss how I could rework it to make it publishable (I was a student, I don’t think I could be expected to know on my own) but there was no feedback.

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  5. My response to such behavior is tough love. I would advise the student that failure to attempt the task will draw an automatic F and a negative adjustment on any overall grade margin for the course that he might eventually hover around. I would also warn him that such behavior is unprofessional and that it will color any reference that he might ever require from me in the future. How would these weak individuals ever have survived on the American frontier?

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    1. Forget the frontier, how will they survive on the job market? I can’t imagine employers lining up to hire people who don’t even try. And the job market is especially tough in my area.

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  6. David Gendron :

    Job market is mainly about networking especially is sub-employment context. So I don’t think this is a bad problem for this student…except for failing this course though.

    Oh, I’m not letting him fail. 🙂 I told my students at the beginning of this course that I will make them pass it whether they want to or not. 🙂

    I just need to learn how to get them out of this defeatist mindset.

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    1. So I correct:

      Job market is mainly about networking especially in a sub-employment context. So I don’t think this is a bad problem for this student….except for this course’s grade.

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  7. Job market is mainly about networking especially in a sub-employment context. So I don’t think this is a bad problem for this student…except for failing this course clearly.

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  8. Also, what I don’t understand is: if I’m paying to be in this classroom with my own hard-earned money or with mortgaging my future in the form of student loans, I will claw out every single bit of use out of the courses that I have paid for. How can people not see that they are flushing their own money down the toilet by not letting me teach them?

    It’s a Spanish course, too. Who doesn’t want to learn Spanish in today’s environment?

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  9. David Gendron :

    Job market is mainly about networking especially is sub-employment context.

    This is not true. I’ve seen many people in my own field who believed that and relied on networking and now they are either unemployed or have crappy adjuncting jobs. I, on the other hand, am genetically incapable of networking and I have a great job. The skill set you bring to the job will always defeat the butt-licking strategies. At least, in the long run.

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    1. I’m not interested to do networking (except for teaching to other students: this is the only thing that I can do) but many less qualified Master’s students in my cohort have jobs in their academic domain right now because of their networking (or pre-existing networks), which is not my case.

      That’s one of the reasons why I decide to pursue a Ph D.

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  10. David Gendron :

    or those students are depressed.

    I’m not qualified to diagnose depression, of course, but the two students I described in this post look very happy and well-adjusted.

    Of course, I realize that depression often masks as happiness, so I just don’t know.

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      1. This is an off-topic, but I’ve read some materials of Quebec University Students movement, and I have a feeling that they are shooting themselves in the leg due to poorly researching the current state of affairs. But I do not know how to tell it to them without sounding not supportive enough. I am supportive, therefore I want the students to bark up the right trees, not the wrong ones.
        a) the students seem to be laboring under misconception that they are university’s employees, and going on strike by not studying somehow hurts the university. Well, it does not. What would hurt the university is not paying tuition and not registering for courses. In other words – taking their money elsewhere. But where is that “elsewhere”, eh?
        b) students seem to believe that entire class/year not graduating (because of the strike) will cause anybody (besides students themselves) any problems. No, it will not. The government will not punish the university if the students will not graduate because of their own strike. Government does not have a formal contract with the university telling that university has to produce X graduates no matter what. There is no shortage of graduates, if somebody will strike themselves into not graduating, the graduates of the previous couple of years just will have less competition on the job market.
        c) situation in Europe is misrepresented. In the countries where tuition is lower/absent, either smaller percentage of youths goes to university and university education is more elitist, or taxes are higher than in Quebec. Or sometimes both.

        Right trees to bark at are excessive expansion of university administration and (mostly) government’s wrong priorities and corruption leading to wasting public resources.

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        1. “the students seem to be laboring under misconception that they are university’s employees, and going on strike by not studying somehow hurts the university. Well, it does not. . . students seem to believe that entire class/year not graduating (because of the strike) will cause anybody (besides students themselves) any problems. No, it will not.”

          – I don’t teach in Quebec, which is why I judge the situation based on my experiences in my US state university. For us, it would have been an enormously huge deal if the entire year failed to graduate. We are hounded, just hounded, day and night with graduation rates and progress to degree. If the entire class doesn’t graduate, we’ll be in very deep shit.

          “The government will not punish the university if the students will not graduate because of their own strike. Government does not have a formal contract with the university telling that university has to produce X graduates no matter what. ”

          – Our state government would totally punish us. We are a state university and we are supposed to perform a function for the state. If we don’t perform it or even simply underperform, we will be in a sea of trouble. How come it’s so different in Quebec?

          ” situation in Europe is misrepresented. In the countries where tuition is lower/absent, either smaller percentage of youths goes to university and university education is more elitist, or taxes are higher than in Quebec. Or sometimes both.”

          – That I agree with completely. I’d also not lump the entire Europe together and I’d abstain from imitating the European system of higher ed because it suffers from grievous defects. I’m speaking specifically of Spain, Great Britain, and France whose graduates (even those with PhDs) cannot even begin to compete with North American graduates.

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      2. Formally it is not different from Quebec. But how exactly do you imagine state/province punishing the university for students not graduating because of not attending class of their own free will? What exactly the government will do? Reduce funding? Fire the professors and start hiring new ones? To fire them again if students go on strike again? Or will they force us to graduate students who did not do the work? Do you think they will engage in such circus? And even if they will – everybody would know that students of this particular year did not do the necessary work. Who would hire them? Employer’s want someone with better-proven ability to do the job. Yes, we do perform function for the society. How will society punish us for not performing that function due to circumstances outside of our control?

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        1. “Reduce funding”

          – Of course. Plus stop hiring plus stop giving pay raises plus possibly suspending health benefits plus putting a hiatus on the tenure process. I can imagine many things happening to us if we fail to graduate students.

          ” Or will they force us to graduate students who did not do the work?”

          – I’m not talking about what the provincial government might do to you. But if this were us, they’d do that and more.

          “And even if they will – everybody would know that students of this particular year did not do the necessary work. Who would hire them? ”

          – This is something that nobody ever really cared about.

          “How will society punish us for not performing that function due to circumstances outside of our control?”

          – I’m not saying that the universities should be punished for the student strike. I’m not in any way promoting such measures, God forbid. Rather, I’m complaining that it is always seen as our responsibility and our screw up when, for example, students drop out without graduating. Even though the real problem is the push to raise enrollments at all costs, which results in admitting students who lack 6th grade reading skills and can’t write a simple sentence. We are not to blame for that, yet we are constantly blamed for the result of that.

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      3. I see what you are getting at, but students just randomly dropping out is different from students dropping out due to organized strike.
        In the first case one can theoretically argue that it is professor’s fault, for s/he is a bad teacher. If student fails because of the strike, this bad teacher argument is impossible to make.
        Same with reducing funding. So they reduce funding, which will force university to raise tuition, against which the students are striking in the first place. To reduce funding in this particular situation and with this particular motivation would be political suicide for any government.
        and Re “they do not care who will hire those students” argument – then they may not care to punish us for those students not graduating. 🙂

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  11. I was in a course once with a professor truly in love with all romantic era spanish literature. We read some great things, but I just couldn’t get into the book we lingered on the most. (dona perfecta, if youre curious). We spent two hours discussing the christ-like qualities a character exhibited in one little non-essential passage. I love dissecting literature, but this one was just too much for me. My eyes must have glazed over, because I was called on to give my analysis of the passage. Foolishly, I said that I thought the other students had done a good job and I wasn’t sure what I could add. The prof was mortally offended. She probably thought that I just didn’t care and was giving in. is it possible that sometimes, some students just have a brain block like this around certain activities or subjects?

    Another thing might be your strong personality. I’ve seen students turn to stone in front of professors that they don’t click well with.

    And by the way, the best part of my day is getting online and seeing that you’ve made a bunch of new posts

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  12. @V

    “a) the students seem to be laboring under misconception that they are university’s employees, and going on strike by not studying somehow hurts the university. Well, it does not. What would hurt the university is not paying tuition and not registering for courses. In other words – taking their money elsewhere. But where is that “elsewhere”, eh?”

    I agree, but the goal is not to hurt the university. It’s to hurt Jean Charest.

    And you know what, I don’t think this is a good strategy. My support is on principles, not strategy.

    “b) students seem to believe that entire class/year not graduating (because of the strike) will cause anybody (besides students themselves) any problems. No, it will not. The government will not punish the university if the students will not graduate because of their own strike. Government does not have a formal contract with the university telling that university has to produce X graduates no matter what. There is no shortage of graduates, if somebody will strike themselves into not graduating, the graduates of the previous couple of years just will have less competition on the job market.”

    There are such contracts (performance contract invented by the CAQ leader François L’Égo), but this strike would not affect that, I agree. But again, this is not the students’ goal.

    “c) situation in Europe is misrepresented. In the countries where tuition is lower/absent, either smaller percentage of youths goes to university and university education is more elitist, or taxes are higher than in Quebec. Or sometimes both”

    Students are in favor of a more academical elitist system, not the universities nor the government. Universties and governement want a financial elitist system to exclude
    dangerous elements, i.e. smart and poor students, to extend the academical bourgeoisie to more and more rich and idiot students, and to have more easily exploitable foreign students admitted in the universities. The taxes issue is irrelevant here.

    c) situation in Europe is misrepresented. In the countries where tuition is lower/absent, either smaller percentage of youths goes to university and university education is more elitist, or taxes are higher than in Quebec. Or sometimes both.

    Right trees to bark at are excessive expansion of university administration and (mostly) government’s wrong priorities and corruption leading to wasting public resources.

    “Right trees to bark at are excessive expansion of university administration and (mostly) government’s wrong priorities and corruption leading to wasting public resources.”

    I agree, but students do this actually and there are many more arguments for their cause.

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  13. @V

    “a) the students seem to be laboring under misconception that they are university’s employees, and going on strike by not studying somehow hurts the university. Well, it does not. What would hurt the university is not paying tuition and not registering for courses. In other words – taking their money elsewhere. But where is that “elsewhere”, eh?”

    I agree, but the goal is not to hurt the university. It’s to hurt Jean Charest.

    And you know what? I don’t think this is a good strategy. My support is on principles, not strategy.

    “b) students seem to believe that entire class/year not graduating (because of the strike) will cause anybody (besides students themselves) any problems. No, it will not. The government will not punish the university if the students will not graduate because of their own strike. Government does not have a formal contract with the university telling that university has to produce X graduates no matter what. There is no shortage of graduates, if somebody will strike themselves into not graduating, the graduates of the previous couple of years just will have less competition on the job market.”

    There are such contracts (performance contracts invented by the CAQ leader François L’Égo), but this strike would not affect that, I agree. But again, this is not the students’ goal.

    “c) situation in Europe is misrepresented. In the countries where tuition is lower/absent, either smaller percentage of youths goes to university and university education is more elitist, or taxes are higher than in Quebec. Or sometimes both”

    Students are in favor of a more academical elitist system, not the universities nor the government. Universties and governement want a financial elitist system to exclude
    dangerous elements, i.e. smart and poor students, to extend the academical bourgeoisie to more and more rich and idiot students, and to have more easily exploitable foreign students admitted in the universities. The taxes issue is irrelevant here.

    “Right trees to bark at are excessive expansion of university administration and (mostly) government’s wrong priorities and corruption leading to wasting public resources.”

    I agree, but students do this actually and there are many more arguments for their cause.

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  14. I’ve had several students not turn in essays or short writing assignments this semester. I think spring semester is always worse for this kind of behavior. I have so many students (especially compared to my peers) this semester that I don’t have time to chase them down. I have several who will fail because of missing assignments, and my overworked attitude is, “sucks to be them.”

    I hate to be like that because I’m generally the kind of prof who will really try hard to work with students to get them turning in things and get them learning. But after the first few attempts this semester, I decided that I couldn’t waste time chasing papers when I had so, so many others to grade. Maybe in less demanding semesters I’ll feel differently, but for now, I’m letting my students hang themselves and hope that they learn something from failing.

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