Can We Motivate Students to Learn?

Spencer Benson

Educational Innovations International Consulting, LLC


One of the most common questions encountered in faculty development workshops is, "How can I motivate my students to learn?" In order to answer that question, we must first examine why students disengage within the course and course material. Students who lack motivation may simply be bored in class. Student report finding classes boring for a variety of reasons including:

  • The course is required rather than one of their choosing;

  • The course was selected because the timing of the course "fits best" within their schedule, but they have no interest in the topic;

  • The course is appealing because the pedagogy is primarily didact content presentation where students know they can be passive observers and coast through the course;

  • The course material is too challenging and subsequently, they become lost and give up;

  • The course material is too basic, and as a result, the student feels unchallenged

Rather than asking how instructors might motivate students to learn, the broader question becomes, "How can I impact student motivation, as a prerequisite for enduring learning?"


Motivation Defined


Motivation is a psychological state that serves to activate and sustain behaviors that lead to a goal (NAP, 2018). Learning goals can be mastery or performance-based or a combination. In a mastery-based goal, the student's primary concern is understanding the material for reasons including enjoyment, self-gratification, and progressing toward a future goal. Often mastery goal setting is associated with a growth mindset. Performance-based goals focus on how well an individual does when compared with peers, where performance ranking is considered a reflection of or measure of self-worth. These individuals may have a fixed mindset and see learning as a competition rather than a means for personal growth. Both growth mindsets and fixed mindsets are malleable states and are context-dependent.


Motivation is different from engagement, interest, goal setting, tenacity, and self-efficacy, all of which influence learning and motivation may involve one or more of these attributes.

Motivation may be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to engage in an activity for rewards, including enjoyment, interest, benefits in obtaining a chosen goal, etc. Examples might include moving to the next level in a video game, successfully mastering a sport, accomplishing a challenging task, or reaching the top of a mountain.


Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards or incentives, e.g., being the best in the class, recognition by superiors or peers, winning, or avoiding punishment. Achievement of the goal is externally rather than internally driven. Often grades are a primary extrinsic motivator for student performance (learning), and this can result in the learning being shallow and non-enduring.


How Content is Delivered Matters


How can we increase student motivation to learn beyond the fact that they will receive a grade? One means is through the intentional selection and presentation of course content. Content that promotes interest can serve to increase motivation; for example, content that students deem significant and relevant increases their internal motivation to learn. We, as faculty, can present content that piques student interest.


Help students make text to self and text to world connections. Deliver the content in ways that utilize real-world examples. It is helpful to present course content in ways that make direct connections between students' prior knowledge or experiences and the new material. Conversely, content that is abstract or deemed unconnected to real-world situations can reduce interest and motivation. Consider presenting the content in a way that that is unexpected, contains vivid imagery, or engaging graphics or video as a means to promote student attention and curiosity. Additionally, review content and present it in a way that the material neither too difficult nor too simplistic, perhaps by using polls or quick warm-up activities at the start of class. Routinely perform classroom assessment techniques to check student learning throughout blocks of material.


A second means to increase motivation is through a pedagogy that enhances situational interest. Learning activities that empower students can increase motivation to learn. For example, when offering students choices regarding course materials or learning activities, interest increases, and motivation to learn increases. Scaffolding as a teaching technique can increase interest and motivation by helping students set a series of obtainable goals. These goals will help students manage large projects or tackle complex concepts, rather than feeling lost.


Classroom Environment Impacts Motivation


Student interest and motivation may be influenced by other factors, including the learning space and the social environment of the classroom (Gratz, 2006, Kemper et al. 2010). Learning environments that are uncomfortable due to temperature, noise issues, inadequate lighting, workspace limited or crowding have adverse effects on interests and motivation. Studio type classrooms where students sit in groups around a table have a positive influence on student motivation which may stem from increased interactivity between students and the teacher. The teacher-student relationship can affect both performance and motivation. When students perceive that the teacher is available, caring, willing to help and recognized them as a person, both learning and motivation increase. Creating a classroom culture that welcomes questions, promotes curiosity, and allows for low-stake mistakes increases student motivation. Contrariwise, poor teacher-student (real or perceived) relationships are detrimental. When students perceive the learning environment as safe, engagement increases; if the environment feels threatening, student interest, performance, and motivation will likely be negatively affected.


When students feel alienated, their interest and motivation to learn will likely be adversely affected. Conversely, a sense of belonging increases motivation to learn.

In short, answering the title question "Can We Motivate Students to Learn" can be summarized in the following ways: By paying attention to the details of what we teach (content), how we teach (pedagogy and assessment), and where we teach (physically and social environments), we can foster motivation in positive ways and avoid pitfalls and environments that quell motivation.


Ultimately, motivation is the responsibility of the individual student and the role of the teacher to provide a learning environment and opportunities for learning and motivation that meet the need of all students.


Discussion Questions


1. Is it the responsibility of the teacher to motivate students; after all, they chose to be in the course?

2. What are some other means to motivate students?

3. In addition to the strategies noted in this blog, what are ways you might adapt (or replace) traditional summative assessments to increase student learning?


Citations


Graetz, K, 2006, The Psychology of Learning Environments, Chapter 6. Learning Spaces, Diana G. Oblinger, Editor EDUCAUSE ISBN 0-9672853-8-0 https://www.educause.edu/research-and-publications/books/learning-spaces/chapter-6-psychology-learning-environments


D., Ho, A., and Hong, C. 2010, Characterizing a teaching and learning environment capable of motivating student learning. Learning Environments Research. Vol. 13 pp 43–57| https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10984-009-9065-8#citeas


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24783

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