Enhancing Student Motivation

September is an overwhelming time for instructors and students alike. For faculty, the quiet summer campus is suddenly transformed, teaming with so many, many young people. David Wooderson may have been lusting after freshman in (1993) Dazed and Confused, but the quote he dropped strikes wistful pangs into the hearts of many an instructor: “I get older, they stay the same age.” With so many faces and years passing, it is easy to lose sight of our own motivations in teaching, and those of our students in learning. Hopefully, the ideas that follow will help you to make a fresh connection with both.

Extrinsic motivation: A resource, not an obstacle.

Maybe part of you (even just a little part of you) is carrying around the “Dead Poet’s Society” thing: you harbour a fantasy that your students can be inspired to embrace your discipline, to see the same excitement in it that propelled you through graduate school and continues to drive your career. No wonder you get bummed out when students want to know how your class will help them to get a job.

Research has shown, however, that most of us are driven by a mix of extrinsic (pragmatic) and intrinsic motivations (Williams & Williams, 2011). If you find yourself feeling a bit cynical at times about your students’ motivations, remember that it isn’t and “either or” thing. It is “both and.” Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations can exist and interact in complex ways. Yes your students want jobs when they graduate. But they also want to lead meaningful lives. As a cohort, Millennials are an idealistic lot. They are pragmatic about planning their lives, but they are also looking for purpose (Elam, Stratton & Gibson, 2007).

Motivation Chart

So what do you do when your students ask, “So what? What does this have to do with life?” If they aren’t asking it out loud, they may well be thinking it. Have some good answers to their questions, and ensure those answers tap multiple sources of motivation. Be proactive. Develop a repertoire of solid examples that show your students how your discipline connects to the “real world.” Use examples as often as you can in class. Be a bit sneaky. You can appeal to extrinsic motivations in order to open the door to your students discovering more intrinsic motivations for their learning.

So what do you do when your students ask, “So what? What does this have to do with life?” If they aren’t asking it out loud, they may well be thinking about it. Have some good answers to their questions, and ensure those answers tap multiple sources of motivation. Be proactive. Develop a repertoire of solid examples that show your students how your discipline connects to the “real world.” Use examples as often as you can in class. Be a bit sneaky. You can appeal to extrinsic motivations in order to open the door to your students discovering more intrinsic motivations for their learning.

Caring.

When students are asked what enhances their learning, they consistently say that feel safer and more motivated when they believe that the professor cares about them as people (Moe, 2001; Weimer, 2013). Caring may seem like an impossible feat when you are staring down 350 faces in a massive lecture hall, but you can, even in this setting, easily incorporate strategies that convey interest and care in your students’ lives and experiences:

  • Arrive early. Spend five minutes before class making small talk with your students. In a big lecture hall, you can walk around and say hello to your students as they settle.
  • Make eye contact. Set a goal for yourself to make eye contact with at least ten different students as you lecture. Try to make eye contact with as many different students as you can over the course of your term. Practice smiling. Often we are more fearful of our students than we care to admit – this is especially true for new instructors. Or we’re stressed out or pre-occupied. A lecture becomes “going through the motions,” and all those students out there in front of you start to look the same. Stop, breathe and connect.
  • Talk about students’ well-being. It’s easy to convey caring with simple gestures: Wish your students a restful weekend. Encourage them to get enough sleep before an exam. You can place study and well-being resources on your syllabus and/or e-class, and remind your students a couple of times over the term that if they are stressed out, ill, or struggling academically, help is available.

Enthusiasm: A gentle, useful weapon.

Surveyed students also consistently report that they are more motivated when their instructor conveys enthusiasm for their work and teaching (Weimer, 2013). Enthusiasm, after all, is infectious. Even if your student don’t totally “get it,” they will enjoy the fact that you do. They may shake their heads, smile, and say “Professor So-and-So is a dork.” But, they will also take positive cues from their observation that something profoundly enjoyable and engaging is driving your motor.

Enthusiasm doesn’t require wild gesticulations, funny hats, or gimmicks, either. You don’t have to be a game show host. Be true to yourself. You can convey enthusiasm in subtle ways, for example, by taking a couple of minutes at the beginning of class to highlight a current event or research article, talking about why it is significant in your field. Share stories of your discoveries, and why they motivated you to continue in your discipline.

You’ll note that none of these strategies requires a radical change to your teaching practice. All of the provided suggestions can be incorporated with almost no time commitment on your part. But the changes do require a mental commitment. This can be difficult in the context of a fast-moving river of competing demands on your focus and energy. Be gentle with yourself. Choose one thing and work on it this term. Small, focused changes can yield big rewards.

More Reading

Elam, C., Stratton, T., & Gibson, D. (2007). Welcoming a new generation to college: The Millennial students. Journal of College Admission, 195, 20–25.

Moe, A. (2001). Emotional contagion in the classroom: How much can a teacher’s enthusiasm increase students’ achievement motivation? Teaching Strategies, 345(25), 1842–1844.

Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Williams, K. C., & Williams, C. C. (2011). Five key ingredients for improving student motivation. Research in Higher Education Journal, 12, 1–23. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=70547700&site=eds-live&scope=site

 

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