Most students begin college, the academic year, and new courses motivated and optimistic. Many first-year students expect to do well because they were successful in high school. Some are right, but others will only find similar success if they work much harder than they did in high school. Yet most start out expending the same level of effort. They will talk with their classmates and convince each other that an exam covering three chapters can’t be that hard, so they put off studying and then “look over” the chapters the night before— happily dealing with any and all interruptions and distractions.
I’ve always said no, effort shouldn’t count. When students pleaded, “but I worked so hard,” or “I studied so long,” I would respond with the clichéd quip about people with brain tumors not wanting surgeons who try hard. Besides if students try hard, if they do their assignments, come to class, take notes, ask questions, and study on more nights than the one before the exam, that effort will pay off. They will learn the material, and their grades will reflect that learning.
“I just cram for the exam and then forget everything.”
“If I can just get this last paper done I am in the clear.”
Comments like these make us cringe, but we all know the external factors that motivate students: grades, grades, grades. I spend a great amount of time providing students with concrete, detailed feedback on papers only to hear someone say, “Oh, I didn’t look at the feedback, just the grade.” From a faculty perspective, the grade is the least important. The joy of student engagement and learning drives our work. We ended up in higher education for a reason—most of us see great value in the learning process.
Gold stars, Girl Scout badges, and Boy Scout badges—when we think about motivating our students to assist them in their learning and development, using badges in the classroom have a similar function as many of the rewards we were offered as young learners in primary schools (Ash, 2012). As a motivational tool, badges can be added to your college classroom using a fairly streamlined process, and with little or no cost to you at an individual level, or at an institutional level.
According to self-determination theory, a theory developed by Deci and Ryan, three basic psychological needs affect motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Susan Epps, associate professor of Allied Health Sciences, and Alison Barton, associate professor of Teaching and Learning, both at East Tennessee State University, have used this theory to develop ways to improve online learner motivation.
When it comes to student motivation, does the axiom, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” apply? Although I believe that, as instructors, we cannot force motivation and learning upon students, we do play a vital role regarding student motivation and a student’s ability to gain knowledge and proficiency in the subject matter.
Many faculty members use quizzes to keep students prepared and present in class. The approach often tends to be punitive, however, motivating students by extrinsic means. Karen Braun and Drew Sellers, who teach beginning accounting courses, wanted to use quizzes in the usual ways—to get students coming to class having done the reading, to arrive in class on time, and to participate in class discussion, but they wanted their quizzes to be more about intrinsic motivation and less about assessment. How did they achieve that objective? They incorporated a number of “motivational” design features into their use of quizzes.
It is difficult to teach if students are unprepared to learn. In a 2013 Faculty Focus reader survey, faculty were asked to rank their biggest day-to-day challenges. “Students who are not prepared for the rigors of college” and “Students who come to class unprepared” finished in a statistical dead heat as the #1 challenge; roughly 30% of the respondees rated both challenges as “very problematic.”
Underachievement in college students is linked to lack of motivation (Balduf, 2009 and references therein). Two major factors that contribute to poor motivation are inability of students to see the relevance of classroom activities to their chosen careers (Glynn et al., 2009) and lack of a sense of autonomy (Reeve and Jang, 2006; Reeve, 2009).
Teaching to students’ strengths and interests can promote creative and critical thinking. But requesting creative responses often engenders the exact opposite of creativity. “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.” “How many words does it need to be?” “What should I write about to get a good grade?” “I’m not creative.” Often these comments are accompanied with sighs, groans, or no responses at all (in the case of online students), indicating just how much students resist when asked to be creative. And these responses are even more prevalent in required and prerequisite courses. So how do we overcome the resistance and encourage creative ideas and thinking from our students?