Motivating Students

On December 1, 2015, in Teaching Tips, Think About It, UWindsor, by gregorynpaziuk

“I’m their teacher…not their parent.”

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that refrain from a stressed out instructor who is losing their patience with a group of students that just doesn’t seem to be putting in the work. Engaging with students is difficult enough, but getting them to engage back can be infinitely more difficult. We talk a lot on this blog about different strategies you can use to engage students, but it’s important to understand what motivates students in the first place.

Understanding Student Motivation

Staff at Vanderbilt’s Centre for Teaching break down student motivation into its extrinsic and  intrinsic forms as a way to differentiate between detrimental and healthy motivation in learning. Essentially that means the difference between external and internal factors, which for students can be the difference between, say, parental expectations and a genuine scholarly curiosity.

Students with extrinsic motivation are primarily working towards an end goal, like a desired earning power, or are trying to live up to the expectations placed upon them by others.

Intrinsically motivated students, however, tend to work hard at their studies because they view that education as having broader implications both personally and socially.

While the literature suggests that intrinsic motivation has more positive impacts on student learning overall, it’s also the hardest to foster. Vanderbilt staff cite DeLong and Winter (2002) in offering quick appeals you can use in the classroom to try and help students see what’s interesting in your subject matter, including…

Applicability “As you work through the next section, I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised how relevant it is.”
Anticipation “As you read through, ask yourself what this section of work is hinting at as the next logical step.”
Surprise “We’ve used X in a lot of different ways.  If you thought you’d seen them all, just wait for the next assignment.”

Read more of Vamderbilt’s guide here:

“What’s In It For Me?”

Face it, a large part of motivation comes from self-gain. No, I don’t want to get side-tracked into a discussion of human psychology, I simply want to remind us all that students need to know how they’re benefiting from something in order to care, and caring leads to trying hard. Don’t assume that a student’s lack of enthusiasm is blatant disrespect or even laziness; it might just be misplaced or misguided prioritization.

It’s simple math: students have a lot to do, they only have so much time, and so they need to divide their time in a way that they feel will produce the best results.

Start each lesson or assignment with a “buy-in” statement similar to the appeals quoted above – just a sentence or two explaining what that particular exercise will allow the student to accomplish. For instance:

“Today’s lesson will discuss the behaviours of certain elements in sub-zero temperatures, which will help you in next week’s lab assignment on state changes.”

“This assignment asks you to consider the ideology of neo-liberalism, and in the process, you will be utilizing the analysis model most commonly used in the political science field.”

Sometimes, particularly when teaching an elective course with a high proportion of students from outside majors, it can be more advantageous to find the transferable skill in the task in order to impress its importance. For instance, a biology major might not be encourage by the fact that they are learning a common analysis model used in political science if they have no interest in that discipline, but they might be persuaded to see its importance in their lives, say, when it comes to spotting different ideologies in popular, everyday news sources.

Looking For Tips?

Outside of the standard fare of projecting enthusiasm and drawing connections between your subject matter and students’ personal lives, there are strategies you can use to motivate your students, such as peer models and establishing belonging. Read more at the Geological Society of America:


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