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November 22, 2006

Tips on teaching: Motivating students

Pitt’s sixth annual Teaching Excellence Fair, held Nov. 8, included summaries from winners of 2005-2006 innovation in education grants and conversations on teaching methods and techniques with faculty, as well as workshops and technology demonstrations led by Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) staff.


Instructors know better than anyone that student’s learning, both in their active participation and in their attitude, is linked inescapably to their motivation. But how does an instructor motivate students?

That was the theme of the workshop, “Promoting Student Motivation for Learning,” part of Pitt’s annual Teaching Excellence Fair.

“Faculty can know their content really well, but sometimes we lose sight of those simple, natural things that are easy to implement and can make a huge difference in students’ attitudes toward learning,” said Carol DeArment, CIDDE senior instructional designer, who led the Nov. 8 workshop.

“It has been shown in cognitive research that people can’t really learn unless they want to. They have to feel an inner desire or need to learn. They have to be engaged in order to have enough interest to pay attention in the first place, and then it’s essential for durable learning that they can actually use and apply their learning.”

According to DeArment, whose areas of expertise include course development, formative evaluation and addressing diversity issues in course planning, motivation results from a combination of extrinsic (external) and intrinsic (internal) factors.

“Extrinsic motivation is what most of us think of: that people are motivated to get a good grade in the course, or get a good grade on an exam, or possibly so they can get a scholarship or some other external reward,” she said.

Extrinsic motivations, while powerful, are not long-lasting and do not encourage durable learning the way the more subtle intrinsic motivations do, DeArment said.

The best instructors recognize the extrinsic motivation that grades provide, but also de-emphasize grading as much as possible by assigning some ungraded work, providing positive feedback and stressing the personal satisfaction derived from a job well done, she said.

These internal motivations are promoted through a number of strategies. “Students appreciate the instructor’s enthusiasm. They like the material to be relevant to their own lives. They like to feel a sense of organization in the course. They like to feel that a course is challenging, but not impossible. They like for students to be actively involved in the course. They appreciate a variety of strategies and methods of presentation. They value rapport between instructor and students. And they like to have concrete and understandable examples,” DeArment maintained.

She suggested a model, developed by educational researcher John Keller and dubbed “ARCS” (attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction), for motivating students. “Most information on motivation fits into these four categories in one way or another,” she said.

• Attention. “First of all, it’s rather obvious, but it can be very frustrating sometimes when you’ve carefully prepared a lecture or a class presentation and you can tell that students are not really listening to you,” she said. “But you have to think of ways to ‘hook’ the students. To combat lack of attention, one chemistry professor does spectacular, loud and visual experiments that make a lot of noise to get students’ attention, although DeArment acknowledged that not every course is conducive to that.

One method to promote motivation is varying instructional strategies — have small-group work, divide the class for a debate, role-play, have a guest speaker, show a video, spring pop quizzes — so students never know what to expect when they get to class.

“Try to think of ways to arouse the students’ interests,” DeArment advised. “Perhaps let them state a problem or suggest a conflict that they will be motivated to follow through on and solve during the class. Make them feel a need to know, a need to pay attention.”

Students particularly are motivated by a teacher’s enthusiasm, she said. “Try to remind yourself on a daily basis what first made you interested in the material and to convey that in some way. Also, share your personal research interests with students. They do pick up on your enthusiasm.”

• Relevance. “This is so important,” DeArment said. “First, you need to find out what your students already know. What is their prior knowledge? What are their skills, experiences, even personal interests?”

Cognitive research has shown that information needs something “to stick to” in the brain, she said. “Information has to fit into something that’s already in the brain, or it won’t find its way into long-term memory. Find a way for your students to find personal meaning in the material.”

That can be accomplished by drawing on the news and otherwise connecting course content to examples of what’s going on in the real world or in the students’ lives. “For example, I know a professor in neuroscience who draws analogies based on the food we eat and the air we breathe, so the new information has something students can relate to,” DeArment said. “Provide a context: Let students know how they’re going to apply what you’re teaching them in future courses, or some ways they can apply it in the real world, perhaps in their careers.”

• Confidence. “People have to feel confident to learn,” DeArment said. “They have to feel some degree of success in order to want to continue learning. You need to give students frequent, supportive feedback. Try to find something to praise about the work they’ve done. And encourage self-evaluation.”

In her writing classes, for example, DeArment asks her students to evaluate their own and their classmates’ work based on the same criteria she uses for grading papers. “This gets them invested, that they can assess themselves. It shows that their opinions are important. It gives them a sense of control in the class. The point is that this gives them confidence,” she said.

• Satisfaction. To reinforce learning with intrinsic rewards, such as rewarding a sense of achievement, emphasize the value of what students are learning, DeArment said. A teacher should give some ungraded assignments, a strategy that reinforces the value of learning for learning’s sake.

“Give students the opportunity, perhaps at mid-semester, to reflect on what assignments worked for them, what kinds of activities were useful to their learning,” she said. “This allows them to acknowledge the things they did right, and to continue using those kinds of activities in their future learning.”

It is important to maintain personal contact and provide constructive feedback throughout a course. “Students always appreciate instructors who know their names, who respond to emails and who welcome them into their offices, and when students are motivated intrinsically they feel a sense of ownership,” she said.

“After mid-semester or near the end of the course, share applications of what the students have learned. Let them see how what they’ve learned can be applied, or let them apply it themselves to the world outside the classroom.”

DeArment also offered some advice concerning common problems that teachers encounter, including student apathy and anxiety, their lack of preparation for class, and issues of diversity in the classroom.

“There are always apathetic students,” she said. “It might sound simplistic to say this, but try to learn their names and use them in class, email them with your concerns, offer to help and schedule time to talk. Measure their progress early and regularly. I have found just a small effort on the part of the instructor can make a really big difference in motivating students.”

Instructors ought not to confuse student anxiety with a bad attitude, DeArment said. “If you feel students have a bad attitude, or that they’re not interested, sometimes it’s just that they’re anxious. They feel they can’t do the work or that they’re not equipped to master the course material. So it is important to share learning objectives early on, and to try to assess their abilities and skills.”

Pinpointing early on that a student does not have the necessary skill level to succeed can lead to that student appropriately dropping a course that would not be rewarding, she noted.

“As the course progresses, if students are having trouble, try to retrace their steps, try to find out at what point in the process they had a problem and maybe share alternative strategies,” DeArment continued. “Let them know that learning is a sequential process. Let them know that things weren’t always easy for you, either; everybody has difficulty at some point in their studies.”

Regarding unprepared students, DeArment said, “They do need some structure and they do need some accountability. They need specific assignments on the reading, whether it’s informal personal responses to the reading, or more formally by giving them quizzes or providing discussion questions in advance that you will ask in class. You also may have them participate in a Blackboard discussion session before class to get them thinking.”

The challenge of a diversified group of students — whether it is due to a ranges of skills, different backgrounds and experiences, or different ages — is among the most difficult issues teachers face, DeArment said.

“It’s not easy to give an answer to that problem,” she said. “You have to try to motivate all students. You should try not to teach to the highest or the lowest level. Find out what they know, vary assignments and mix levels of skill into study groups. You should also share examples of student work, to show them what you’re looking for.”

-—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 7

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