Online learning has quickly joined the ranks of higher education as a necessary alternative to traditional face-to-face instruction. While this substitute requires a significant amount of self-direction and has been offered for many years at many institutions, it was most recently that virtual learning was no longer a choice but the way of education.
Within higher education, engagement, motivation, and self-determination are not only significant but vital for academic success. Prior to the pandemic, I embarked on a research project to gain insight into what motivates students to enter the education program on my community college campus. My study utilized Ryan and Deci’s (2000) self-determination theory (SDT) to analyze the motivational factors revealed from a survey data collection. According to Ryan and Deci (2000), SDT focuses on a continuum of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. The nature of choice and self-direction can be connected to intrinsic motivation which can be defined as an innate concept. Characteristics of intrinsic motivation can include curiosity, liveliness, and self-determination. Ryan and Deci (2000) believed that intrinsic motivation is intuitively based on experience yet embedded in the individual’s relationship with a given activity. On the flip-side, extrinsic motivation can be best described as a desire to participate in an event or complete a task for external reasons.
The purpose of the study was not only to understand student perspectives on why they chose this particular program, but also to inform decisions about how to attract, learn about, and educate students on motivation. While the information I collected was insightful, what stands out most is what I learned about myself during this process; the importance and need for daily reflection to increase the motivational levels of both my students and myself.
A defeating data collection
Data collection began in the fall of 2019 and continued into spring of 2020. It was one week into the spring semester when my survey was shared with students—two days later we went remote. Knowing that only a handful of students had completed the survey the day they received it, I knew it was not going to give me the expected sample size I needed; I needed to come up with a plan. Daily checks of Survey Gizmo (now Alchemer) revealed fewer and fewer responses with each passing day, and I quickly realized that my participant pool was not going to be sufficient. I did what I thought any good researcher would do: nothing. I left it alone and did nothing. My energy and focus were solely shifted to planning for remote teaching and learning. Developing new syllabi, culling through the many online resources available, and creating engaging video clips was how I spent my time.
Feelings of defeat would cross my mind when I thought about my research. How could I validate spending any more time on a participant pool that was half of what I anticipated? I realized I was no longer intrinsically motivated as my internal enjoyment of this important project was taken away. Months passed without focusing on this work. When I wasn’t delving into workshops to become a better online educator, grading assignments, or creating videos that would support weekly topics, I would think about my research and lose all motivation to work.
Finding motivation again
Near the end of the spring semester, I had organized a workshop that was offered to students in the education program. On the day of the virtual workshop, the facilitator invited me in (virtually) as was done in the past to welcome the group to the session and offer some helpful reminders to get their certificates of attendance. Well, what I was not expecting was a student to ask if it was still okay to respond to the survey that was received earlier in the semester. With that, several students made remarks about recalling the survey and asked that they receive the link again. I resent the link to my colleagues to share, and within one week, I exceeded my goal with over 130 responses. Suddenly, my motivation was at its high point; I had data, useful data to cull through and analyze. Student interest and participation motivated me to once again become engaged with my research.
A remote learning shift
Aside from noting the dates that surveys were completed, it was evident that the shift to remote learning impacted the responses about motivational factors influencing their choice to be part of the education program. Participant responses from the fall semester and an open-ended question asking why they chose this program included statements such as, “It is close to my home and work,” and “My job pays for me to take certain classes,” both examples within extrinsic motivation. The responses from the spring read much differently. Signs of hope and excitement could be perceived in statements such as, “I heard this was a great program and that was right. My professors care about me and check in on me,” and “This is hard work, but I know my teachers want me to learn something so that I can be ready for the field,” and “I dreaded going online, but when I saw how hard my professors were working on getting me ready for my field experience, I wanted to do my best.” The internal drive to succeed could be heard in the latter. Students were given a space to have their voices heard, and they opened up with the reality of why they enrolled in this particular program. In addition, the efforts put in by faculty to transition to remote teaching and learning was being recognized by this particular group of future teachers.
Reflecting on student statements
The statements from the open-ended survey questions resonated with me; they had me reflect on the decisions I was making that impacted my students’ motivation. Igniting students’ internal drive and shaping their motivation to accomplish goals does not come with a recipe to follow. How educators involve students in either a face-to-face or virtual classroom and respond to individual outside influencers can vary greatly. SDT suggests that the educational setting helps facilitate students’ intrinsic motivation for academic achievement through support and encouragement. I agree that motivation is built upon by both educators and students, but I am not convinced that the distribution is equitable. Educators have an increasingly greater charge in constructing motivation because they hold the responsibility of creating engaging tasks for students to complete.
What I have learned is data collection is both a partnership with students and an ongoing reflective practice. It needs to be said that as data is analyzed, more questions should arise; one survey should not be the end. As educators and researchers, we must consistently challenge ourselves to want to learn more about our students. Once we gain insight, we need to act on the new knowledge gained to inform future instruction. Engaging students in this way helps promote a sense of agency in their learning process in profound ways by no longer focusing solely on the actions of teachers and peers and by building intrinsic motivation.
What I’ve learned about reflective teaching practices to enhance motivation
Be transparent in your teaching approach. Utilize clear communication and share the rationale for strategies being used to increase both understanding and motivation. When we communicate to students the rationale behind our instructional choices, they are more likely to complete the task and be more motivated to learn.
Incorporate relevant resources that are fresh and accessible to students. Take the time to update practices and resources that are content appropriate, equitable, and engaging. Providing students with understanding and focus for reading an article or watching a video will increase their interest and support the connections to the coursework assigned.
Exhibit positivity and confidence in presenting course material and as a human. Remember that students look to us to model expectations and behaviors. Modeling preparation, dedication, and the need for effort are essential. We want them to apply what they see in us to their lives or, in the case of education program students, their field settings. Call students by their preferred name and witness higher levels of motivation.
Respect time for both yourself and students, whether responding to questions via email or grading assignments. A student that poses a question is likely not forecasting what they will want to know in the future; they are asking when the response is needed. If you are providing a due date/deadline for an assignment, then they should have an expectation for when it will be graded. Leaving time between the graded assignment return and the next due date will allow time for students to include suggestions made.
Provide meaningful feedback to your students through insightful comments that not only show you read their work but offers ideas for how to improve. If we expect students to spend time developing a well thought out assignment, we need to spend time on the feedback we offer. Constructive feedback increases motivation and encourages students to actively engage with you about their work.
I am highly motivated to be part of future research to develop motivational instruments for teachers, which could facilitate an in-depth understanding of teacher motivation from various perspectives. Reflecting on the impact of student engagement with my own motivational levels was enlightening and any opportunities that result in a positive effect on students’ performance is valuable. By being reflective and remaining open to change, we open ourselves and students to increased levels of motivation and engagement.
Patrice Morgan, EdD, is an assistant professor in the education program at CUNY Kingsborough Community College. The majority of her teaching focuses on preparing pre-service teachers to enter classrooms in a professional manner with the confidence, skills, and knowledge needed for success. Dr. Morgan has co-facilitated workshops and discussions for both students and faculty on topics related to motivation, educational technology, and becoming culturally responsive. Before joining Kingsborough’s faculty in 2010, Dr. Morgan was a principal of a NYC Charter School, and prior to that she taught in the elementary grades for over 10 years.
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Ross – Gordon, J. M. (2011). Research on Adult Learners: Supporting the Needs of a Student Population That Is No Longer Nontraditional. Peer Review, 13, 26-29. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/research-adult-learners-supporting-needs-student-population-no