Paramedic Lessons on Motivation in Learning

This is a photo taken by a friend of mine of a pile up on the Cajon Pass that happened when I was working in Victorville. If you have ever wondered why you should pay attention in class this picture is worth a thousand words.

After several years as a paramedic I decided to get involved with training. Many of the classes I took to become an EMS instructor spent a lot of time on theories of “adult learning.” Adults learn different than children. One important emphasis is on motivation. If adult students don’t see any value in learning the material you are presenting, then most of them will drift off. I had this theory drummed into my head, and tasted it in the many classes I taught.

I personally had sat through so many lectures and CE classes (continuing education) that were a form of legalized torture. The teacher was boring and ineffective. The students were rowdy and everyone wished they could go home. Often it was worse than a just a waste of time because there were few precious hours available to “raise the bar” of health care provided by EMT’s and Paramedics. I hated sitting through classes like this, and probably muttered a vow to myself that I would never teach a class like that. My classes would be worthwhile….My students would learn…My students would even enjoy it! Easy to say, hard to do.

I have always had good grades, from the elementary years, through high school, and into college. But much of the time I still felt like I was faking it, not really learning. It was not until I went to paramedic school at Mt. Sac in 1995 that I feel like I really “learned how to learn.” For the first time in my life I felt like I had to remember something that was for more than just an exam. Our instructors intentionally rattled our cages with a healthy amount of stress. Stand and Deliver. I felt like I needed to know this stuff or people might die. And that was true. So I studied and buried myself in the material. My Goal: mastery. Well of course you can’t master anything until you have gone out and done it for a while. But my hard work in school did pay off, and many years later I was still reaping the benefits of the knowledge I had gained. Some of it was above and beyond. But there were many times when I was able to pick up on some piece of information in an assessment, from a patient’s history or medication list that might have gotten missed. And it was because I had worked hard in the class room. And after School I was committed to keep on learning. And when I became an instructor I was determined that I would keep my students interested.

I mention this because I have often heard people belly-ache in various classes about what they have to learn. Even if they pass, they leave ignorant because they are not convinced that it matters. Who needs to know that stuff. It is stupid. I don’t want to deal with all of these details, I want the glory! Yeah, uhuh. And who wants you to come to their rescue, Mr. I just barely passed by the skin of my teeth.

I read some of the Horatio Hornblower books several years ago and a statement in one of the books has stuck in my mind. One of the sailors said, “for every 2 minutes of excitement in battle, there are 2 weeks (or was it months?) of monotony at sea.” This is definitely true of medicine, and EMS in particular. Much of it is routine, even boring. But it is in those in-between hours of average work, of routine, of study, and diligence in mundane things that no one notices; this is what really defines who you are as a person, and a professional. It will define your reputation, and establish the habits (or ruts) that will bleed over (pardon the pun) when the heat of battle rages on. You may only get one shot to make it big.

Sadly, I have had many instructors who do not make the subject matter exciting. They have lost connection with the idea of motivation and purpose. Want to be successful? Convince yourself that you NEED TO LEARN when you are taking classes. Ineffective teacher? In my opinion, it is during these times that we have to motivate ourselves with a sense of the significance of study, and remind ourselves why we are learning. Furthermore, being able to learn from a bad teacher might be the most valuable thing you gain. If you can learn from a clod, you can teach yourself. Stay motivated, even if you have to tell yourself a lie like, “I really need to know this for the future! Maybe there will be a job interview question about this someday.” Truth is, it probably isn’t a lie. I have heard of stories about that, “oh I see on your resume, that you have taken a class in XXXX, tell us about YYYY…”

Stay motivated. This is one of the keys for learning for adults ( and I think kids too).

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