If you've been reading for a long time you may recall my standard disclaimer from the Early Days: "Be patient, I'm going somewhere with this."
For six-plus years at my current institution I've been taking advantage of a free group fitness class offered twice weekly. It is sort of a hybrid of Jazzercise and Crossfit. I love it because 1) I respond well to the structure of someone telling me what to do and 2) it's hard. The older I get, the harder it is to self-direct in a gym without quickly succumbing to "I'm tired and this is too hard." For me, a class works.
Over time the attendance in this specific class has tailed off. There used to be a core group of undergraduates and older faculty-staff like me, and as people have left the university through attrition many of them have drifted away. Every time new undergraduates come to the class, they come exactly once. I have been watching this dynamic play out for years. It's not some enormous class with 100 people and I never miss a session, so I notice who's a regular and who isn't.
Undergraduates come exactly once for two reasons. One I already mentioned: it's hard. The other is that the class involves a certain "routine" or sequence of actions – choreography? – that is totally baffling the first time you try it. After so many years, I can do the whole thing with my eyes closed from memory. But when it was new to me, it definitely took me a good 3-5 classes to get used to moving from X to Y to Z and so on. You trip over yourself a lot at first.
And if teaching has taught me anything it is that 1) young people will not do anything they absolutely do not have to / want to do, and 2) they quit immediately if something is hard. This has been a subject of interest in the video game industry, which is aimed mostly at the teenage demographic. Old school (80s/90s) video games were hard. They did things like make players go all the way back to the beginning if they "died." Over time video games had to evolve to allow players to respawn wherever they finished their previous try and to make everything easy enough that you can get past it quickly without too much effort. Long challenges or points in the game that are difficult to beat have disappeared in favor of larger "worlds" filled with player-directed tasks that generally aren't real difficult.
This isn't an ideological choice but a practical one. Game companies started to notice that if players couldn't advance past an obstacle immediately or nearly so, they would just stop playing.
I think about that example all the time in my class. It is nothing that a person of any fitness level would be unable to do if they would just try it more than once. Everything can be modified to easier and less demanding movements. The sequence / steps sink in after a few tries. But as sure as the sun sets, these kids show up once and look frustrated and never come back again. They're on the verge of canceling the class because so few of us are attending now. People leave and are never replaced with new regulars.
On occasion I also go to a different fitness class, same university. This class is essentially an hour of lunges and crunches. It requires no learning of any kind. It's always packed, and most people are only loosely following along with what the instructor is doing. They just kind of do whatever, and don't push themselves to do anything beyond what they can do easily. The students *love* this class, if attendance is evidence of anything.
It's anecdotal to be certain, but I feel like this says a lot about my job. I'm not teaching group workouts but it's abundantly clear that some, if not most, students gravitate toward things that they can do easily on the first try and avoid things that require, you know, learning something.
I'll leave it to others to draw broad conclusions from this, but it's hard not to notice. It's a real thing.