student motivation June 6

Five Keys to Motivating Students

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Recently I had reason to revisit Paul Pintrich’s meta-analysis on motivation. It’s still the piece I most often see referenced when it comes to what’s known about student motivation. Subsequent research continues to confirm the generalizations reported in it. Like most articles that synthesize the results of many studies, it’s long, detailed, and liberally peppered with educational jargon. It does have a clear, easy to follow organizational structure and most notably, it spells out implications—what teachers might consider doing in response to what the research says motivates students. Here’s a quick run-down of those generalizations and their implications. 


common teaching mistakes March 1

Four Horsemen of the Teaching Apocalypse

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Four problems account for the lion’s share of serious teaching problems:

  1. Misalignment
  2. Expert blind spot
  3. Content overload
  4. Over-identification

An overstatement? Perhaps, but over the many years we’ve worked with faculty in a wide range of disciplines, we’ve seen these issues undermine students’ learning, motivation, and morale in insidious ways. Easy to fall prey to, they compromise the effectiveness of even seasoned teachers. Here’s some advice on recognizing the problems, avoiding them, and preventing the host of headaches they can cause.

Misalignment
Three important elements characterize any well-designed course: objectives (what students should know or be able to do by the end of the course), assessments (the means used to gauge students’ progress toward those objectives), and instruction (the methods and materials employed to help students acquire the knowledge and skills articulated in the objectives). A solid course design requires that these elements be aligned, each dovetailing with and supporting the others.

Misalignment occurs when these three elements are not in sync, in particular when the knowledge and skills being taught are not the same as those being assessed. “I’d never do that!” you might be thinking. And of course, no one ever means to. But it can happen more easily than most of us realize. All too often, we teach the whats (terms, definitions, formulae) and the whys (concepts, principles) of a subject but assess the hows (procedures, methods) and the whens (conditions of application).

Think of how we learn to drive. We study the whats and whys of the rules of the road in order to pass a written test. Then we have to pass a test of actual driving. Would studying for the written test prepare us adequately for the driving test? Of course not. Actual driving requires other knowledge, skills, and practice, for which road rules are necessary but not sufficient. If we prepared for the driving test solely by learning road rules, it would constitute misalignment: the instruction and assessment don’t line up.

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student at white board April 26, 2017

Helping Students Discover What They Can Do

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“What has held me, and what I think hold many who teach basic writing, are the hidden veins of possibility running through students who don’t know—and who strongly doubt—that this is what they were born for, but who may find it out to their own amazement, students who, grim with self-deprecation and prophecies of their own failure . . .can be lured into sticking it out to some moment of breakthrough, when they discover that they have ideas that are valuable, even original, and express those ideas on paper. What fascinates me and gives hope in time of slashed budgets and enlarging class size, and national depression is the possibility that many of these [students] may be gaining the kind of critical perspective on their lives and skill to bear witness that they have never before had.”


student with pile of books March 16, 2016

It’s Not About Hard or Easy Courses

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Now here’s an argument I haven’t heard before: Improving your instruction makes it easier for students to learn. If it’s easier for them to learn, they won’t work as hard in the course, and that means they could learn less. It’s called offsetting behavior and we can’t ask students about it directly because it would be disingenuous for them to admit to studying less when learning becomes easier.


students high fiving December 3, 2015

Self-Directed Learning: Antecedents and Outcomes

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Most faculty now recognize the importance of students being able to direct their own learning. It’s what positions them for a lifetime of learning. And most faculty also recognize that many of our students are more dependent than self-directed. They want the teacher to make most, if not all, of the learning decisions for them. “What do you want in this assignment?” “How long should it be?” “Do I need to have references?” “What do I need to know for the test?” “How many homework problems should I do?” All these are questions self-directed learners ask and answer for themselves.



smiling female student November 12, 2014

Prompts to Help Students Reflect on How They Approach Learning

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One of the best gifts teachers can give students are the experiences that open their eyes to themselves as learners. Most students don’t think much about how they learn. Mine used to struggle to write a paragraph describing the study approaches they planned to use in my communication courses. However, to be fair, I’m not sure I had a lot of insights about my learning when I was a student. Did you?


August 13, 2014

Motivating Students: Should Effort Count?

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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.


July 21, 2014

Examining Knowledge Beliefs to Motivate Student Learning

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“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.


June 16, 2014

The Secret of Self-Regulated Learning

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Self-regulated learning is like your own little secret. It stirs from within you, and is the voice in your head that asks you questions about your learning.

More formally, self-regulated learning is the conscious planning, monitoring, evaluation, and ultimately control of one’s learning in order to maximize it. It’s an ordered process that experts and seasoned learners like us practice automatically. It means being mindful, intentional, reflective, introspective, self-aware, self-controlled, and self-disciplined about learning, and it leads to becoming self-directed.