Course Design: Motivating Students

Though some people would disagree, I believe that a substantial part of my students’ motivation is my responsibility as an instructor. Based on the expectancy-value theory of motivation, which has been applied to academic motivation in several ways (see readings below), people are motivated to do things in which they see value. Because the value of learning activities (lectures, assignments, or something else) is evident to instructors, we often don’t explain it to students. Or we wait to reveal the big picture until the end of the course. When I took calculus in high school (not a time when I was good at identifying the value of information), my instructor waited until the end of the course to reveal all of the ways calculus is incredibly useful. At that point though, I had already slogged aimlessly through a year’s worth of calculus without a sense of why it was valuable and decided that I didn’t like it.

I plan to demonstrate the value of my research design and methods course by making the big picture explicit, starting with the course goals. For example, one of my course goals is, “Write reports that assess the practical contribution and limitations of scientific research.” These reports will ask students to find scientific research from various resources (e.g., entertainment outlets, news sources, scholarly articles) and determine the validity of claims made by the authors. I will make sure that students recognize that this is valuable because we are living in an information era, and being able to assess the value of information is becoming a crucial skill for all people, regardless of profession.

A Berkeley professor uses the following motivation technique: at any point during class, any student can ask, “Who the hell cares?” I like this technique because it lets the instructor know when students can’t see the value of content and provides a chance to revisit the purpose of the course. I would like this technique more if, instead of only the instructor answering, the other students were asked to chime in as well. Then students would get a chance to step back and think about the big picture.

The other part of the expectancy-value theory is that people are motivated when they expect that they can achieve their goals with a sufficient amount of effort. The Ambrose et al. (2010) chapter starts with a story about a professor who essentially tells her students that they will have to work harder in her class than they’ve ever worked before and still a third of them will fail. She thought that this threat (at least that’s how I would characterize it) would motivate students to rise to the challenge, but the students who would be motivated to rise to the challenge are the students who would do well no matter the situation. The message this sends to students who are likely to struggle is that no matter how hard you work, you still might not succeed. Unsurprisingly, this professor found that most of her students were apathetic about their performance in the course.

To address the expectancy part of motivation, my course goals outline what success in my course looks like. I will base my instructions and assessments on these course goals, so students can refer back the goals and remind themselves of what is most important. I believe that there is no reason that a student who works hard in my course shouldn’t get an A, and I will explicitly tell my students as much. One of my strengths as an instructor is my flexibility. I will ask students for feedback once or twice during the semester and take their suggestions when appropriate and feasible in order to demonstrate that their opinions matter.

The Ambrose et al. (2010) chapter suggests giving students chances to reflect on their learning. I believe reflection is an important activity for motivation – for both value and expectancy. Reflection allows students to appreciate what they have learned and how it relates to their values and goals. It also gives students an opportunity to assess themselves, determine which behaviors are most successful, and plan to strategically allocate their efforts in the future. Reflection is a type of metacognition, and like other metacognition, it can be incredibly valuable to students, but not all students will engage in it without prompting. So I will build in reflection activities throughout the semester to help motivate students.

For more on motivating students — Ambrose et al. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. pp. 66-90.

Jones, B. D. (2009). Motivating students to engage in learning: The MUSIC model of academic motivation. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21(2), 272-285.

For more information about the course design series or more course design posts, visit the course design series introduction.


One thought on “Course Design: Motivating Students

  1. Pingback: Course Design: Series Introduction | Lauren Margulieux

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