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Ideas for Motivating Students

Posted by on Tuesday, November 30, 2010 in News.

By Lily Claiborne, CFT Graduate Teaching Fellow

In the “Motivating Students” workshop on October 26, 2010, a group of grad students and postdocs discussed what, as teachers, we wished motivated students and what actually motivates them in practice.  We established that, while extrinsic motivators (such as grades, parental approval, potential earnings of a career) are common and are the primary motivators for most students, they don’t lead to deep learning and can actually diminish students’ intrinsic interest in a subject and motivation to master it.  Research suggests that intrinsic motivation is derived from four innate student desires, and satisfying these desires can lead to more intrinsic motivation in our students, resulting in deeper learning.  These four desires are control, competence, connectedness, and sharing.  Workshop participants came up with some innovative techniques to address these student desires and enhance motivation, including…

  • Facilitate a peer-editing session, where students review and edit one another’s papers sometime before the final due date (competence, sharing)
  • Shape lessons and discussions around students’ personal stories (control, connectedness, sharing)
  • Give students choice of topics and/or format for assignments (control)
  • Have students brainstorm ideas for projects or papers, and then put them all in one list, allowing students to then choose a topic for their project from the list (control, sharing)
  • Make sure students in a class know one another (connectedness)
  • Ask students what kinds of activities they think would help them learn best (control)

Participants also broke into working groups to try to address three particularly difficult challenges to motivating students:

Motivating Lectures

Participants decided that the challenges to motivating students during lectures stemmed mostly from the format of teachers talking and students listening.  This can result in lectures that are boring, don’t hold student attention, and don’t result in deep learning.  As tools to combat these issues, participants suggested having student present ideas in class on occasion so that students are doing some of the “lecturing.”  Participants also suggested that lectures that regularly engage the students by asking them questions and incorporating active learning can address issues of boredom and waivering attention.  Setting an agenda at the beginning and asking students what they have learned at the end can motivate them to pay attention throughout so that they can successfully participate at the end of the lesson.  This can also increase their learning, as they synthesize their new knowledge to share with the class.

Motivating Non-Majors

It was agreed that motivating non-majors in an introductory course can be challenging due to students’ lack of intrinsic interest in the topic, resistant attitude to the course because it is required, misconceptions surrounding the lack of relevance of the topic to their lives or their goals, feelings of having little talent or skill in the field, and the demands of other courses that may take priority.  To point out the relevance of any subject, participants suggested drawing parallels with various other fields, specifically those in which students are already interested.  Helping students feel successful will also contribute to students’ motivation in a course outside their comfort zone.  This can be acheived by encouraging small steps and little improvements, having some flexibility while grading, providing good support for students from TAs and other students, providing ample background and introductory material for new concepts, and using plenty of positive reinforcement.  Asking students what would be helpful to them can help them feel more motivated in a course where they feel like outsiders.

Assessing Motivation

If you take steps in your course to better motivate your students, then how can you tell whether you were successful?  Participants decided that assessing whether students are motivated or how student motivation changes with time is inherently difficult because getting feedback, particularly honest feedback, on motivation is difficult.  Can you trust a student’s self-report about his or her motivation in a class?  How can you gather information on student motivation when doing so isn’t part of traditional assessment activities?    Considering these difficulties, suggestions for assessing student motivation included getting anonymous feedback (often and in class), having independent meetings with students so that you can get to know them, and creating a comfortable atmostphere in the classroom that will encourage students to be honest with you when sharing about their motivations.

Image: “Aoraki Rappel,” Dru!, Flickr (CC)


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