Lessons from dog agility
Intrinsic rewards, breaks, socializing, and movement
I’ve been to some dog agility classes, and my impression is that they’re effective and enjoyable, which unfortunately, is more than I can say about some college classes out there. In this post, I’ll describe the primary aspects of agility classes that could improve traditional classroom settings.
A typical agility class (in my experience) looks like this: four students, each with one dog, and one instructor. Each student (and their dog) works with the instructor for 5-10 minutes, and students take turns for a total of 60-90 minutes, so each student gets 2-3 turns per class. This might sound like a scam — a student paying for 60 minutes only gets 15 — but I suspect they think it’s worth it for a few reasons:
It’s difficult for humans (and certainly dogs) to concentrate for an hour straight. By taking breaks, students can reset their minds, and dogs can recover their focus.
The time that students spend with the instructor is solid. They receive individual attention and tons of rapid feedback, which are hallmarks of highly effective learning. Since the dogs have been stuck in a crate since their last turn, they bring a lot of energy, which makes the activity more fun for everyone (as long as the dog doesn’t get carried away!).
The time that students spend on the sidelines is also valuable. They observe high-quality instruction, practice maneuvers on their own, and mentally prepare themselves for their next turn. They also get to socialize with their classmates, which might sound extraneous, but I think making friends is an underrated part of the student experience.
So what can we take away from this? Maybe nothing — it’s easy to dismiss this turn-taking approach by saying it’s impossible to scale, but I think the situation is more interesting than that.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards
In my opinion, the primary difference between a dog agility class and a typical college course is not an easily observable variable like class size (though that certainly matters). Instead, I believe the main difference is how much students view their experience as intrinsically rewarding. People who do dog agility primarily cite reasons related to internal motivation, such as “cooperation with my dog” and “the challenge it offers.” After all, lessons cost time and money, and it’s hard to earn either of those things through dog agility, so it makes sense that internal motivation is a dominant factor. In fact, it seems to me that almost every experience that people buy (e.g., eating at restaurants, watching movies, going to amusement parks) is intrinsically rewarding.1
Unfortunately, going to college is a big exception. Is it intrinsically rewarding to sit in lectures for gen-ed courses like calculus, biology, and English? For most people, probably not. Instead, when asked why they chose higher education, U.S. adults overwhelmingly cite job and career outcomes. In one survey conducted in 2014, the top three reasons prospective students chose as reasons to go to college were to “improve my employment opportunities,” “make more money,” and “get a good job.” For each of these reasons, about 90% of respondents indicated that it’s “important” or “very important.”
One way for college administrators to bend the cost-benefit curve in their favor is to lower tuition, but I don’t want this post to be about financial aspects.
Instead, let’s focus on how educators can portray college as intrinsically rewarding, like dog agility. For example, within a class, instructors can show students why the material is inherently interesting. They probably won’t graduate with a burning desire to spend years working on an arcane math problem, but I think it’s nice for students if they can appreciate why someone else would. Many academics are really into whatever they’re into, and it’s inspiring to experience a hint of their passion. (I must acknowledge that passion is quite a loaded word — see screenshot below.)
To foster this appreciation among students, instructors could pose a sequence of intriguing questions leading to the desired learning outcomes, explore a few contemporary examples of concepts taught in class, or ask students to reflect on why they’re taking the course (hopefully beyond “it satisfies a requirement”). Outside the classroom, administrators can make college more intrinsically rewarding by offering new courses, developing outreach programs, renovating campus spaces, and improving other aspects of student life.
Mental, social, and physical aspects
Enough psychology — let’s return to dog agility classes and focus on the more observable aspects, which are also easier for an instructor to influence. Again, I realize that the issue of scaling seems insurmountable, and I won’t pretend that every college instructor should individually work with each of their students. (Imagine dividing 80 minutes of lecturing across 100 students so that each student gets 48 seconds — that might generate a few complaints from students.) But still, there are a few tangible ideas.
The first, and simplest, is having built-in breaks. Breaks allow students to absorb what they’ve learned, recharge and take care of bodily needs, and work through the content on their own. After a high-quality break, students are better prepared for the next part of their lesson. The cost is quite low, too: it’s easy to add breaks to a lecture, students love them, and they don’t need to last very long.
As mentioned earlier, students in agility classes often socialize during breaks, which is good because social relationships improve learning. Students are often intimidated by their instructors and afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates. If a student has a friend in the class, then together they can puzzle through the content without those fears.2 A bit of social pressure and/or competition among classmates might not be so bad either (but of course, too much can be detrimental).
Finally, dog agility involves a lot of physical activity. I’m not saying that students should run around the classroom, but there’s a ton of literature on the mental benefits of physical activity. For example, you’ve probably heard that sitting a lot is unhealthy, so some teachers lead stretches during breaks in their lectures. And there are lots of other ideas on how teachers can incorporate physical activity in their classrooms.3
More generally, people learn in a variety of ways beyond traditional classroom settings. By drawing inspiration from other learning environments, perhaps teachers can improve the experiences of their students.
One could argue that, for example, some people go to restaurants not for the experience itself, but to post pictures and acquire followers on social media. I’d certainly agree that humans seek status, but I suspect that most people go to restaurants for the experience itself, not some extrinsic reward.
This is also an argument in favor of AI tutors — they might not be flawless, but they are infinitely patient and nonjudgmental.
I’ll admit that students might resist some — or maybe all — of these ideas, but another lesson from dog agility is that we need to think positively! Yay!!!