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October 29, 2015

Teaching@Pitt: Motivating your students to learn


We instructors tend to be energized when our students enjoy learning.

However, our enthusiasm is dampened by the apathetic students who come to class unprepared, focus on their mobile devices in class, or even stop attending class altogether. We want to reach all of our students and feel stymied by those who seem to have no interest in what we’re teaching.

Motivation is a critical requirement for meaningful, lasting learning. While extrinsic rewards in the form of grades often are used to prod students, such forms of motivation have limited power: Students might try harder initially, but an emphasis on the grade, rather than on the less tangible benefits of learning, may encourage them to learn at superficial levels and even arouse feelings of resentment toward the instructor as the figure who has all of the power.

On the other hand, when students are intrinsically motivated, the striving for higher grades is overshadowed by an innate desire to learn, and the learning is deeper and more likely to be retained and used beyond the classroom. The following strategies will help to intrinsically motivate your students to learn:

Know your students. Students are more motivated when they believe an instructor is genuinely interested in their learning as individuals.

• Learn names early in the semester, and call students by name.

• Encourage students to interact with you in class and during office hours. Arrive early to informally chat with students and to exchange questions and comments about what they are learning.

• Conduct an informal survey to find out what students already know. Then provide resources for less prepared students, for example those who are taking the course as a one-time elective in the discipline.

• Offer to help students who appear to be apathetic or struggling.  Point out campus support areas that may help them.

• Encourage class participation and emphasize that there is no such thing as a “dumb” question or answer.

Share enthusiasm! Student surveys indicate that faculty enthusiasm is one of the most motivating factors in their learning.

• Starting with the first day of class, describe what it is about this subject that intrigues you.

• Share your expertise, research interests and discipline-related real-world experiences.

• Describe what prompted you to want to teach this material.

Demonstrate relevance. Show students how course content, assignments and activities have real-world applications, using concrete examples, simulations, analogies and case studies.

Share control. Students are more motivated to learn when they understand the purpose of each course component and when their voices can be heard.

• Explain the rationale for specific policies and let students know how information from readings will be used in class activities and assignments.

• Invite students to contribute to course policies and procedures. For example, ask students to contribute to a list of expectations for an effective class discussion.

• Ask students to prepare possible discussion and exam questions and suggest readings.

• Ask students early in the semester to anonymously share their perceptions of course strengths and weaknesses. Then let them know that you have considered their suggestions as ways to make some modifications.

Hold students’ attention. Students need to be cognitively engaged in order to learn. Learning must be an active process if the information is to be retained.

• Stimulate an attitude of inquiry at the beginning of class by asking a question or sharing a perplexing case study. Throughout the class, come back to the question and encourage students to formulate responses based on what they have learned.

• Build in opportunities for students to mentally process information, pausing regularly to ask a question that prompts students to reflect on and apply the information that has been presented.

• Draw all students into class activities and discussions by requiring students to write a personal response to readings, bring discussion questions to class, or participate in a threaded discussion in Blackboard prior to class. This prepares even shy students to participate in a class discussion.

Challenge students while building their confidence. Students are motivated to succeed when they feel both challenged and confident they will be able to master the goals.

• Break complex projects into shorter tasks, and provide specific expectations for critical milestones.

• Use brief informal comprehension checks to assess students’ knowledge and reveal possible misconceptions.

• Give frequent, prompt, supportive feedback on ungraded work to encourage students to learn for the personal satisfaction of achievement.

Carol DeArment is a CIDDE senior instructional designer, teaching and learning consultant.

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