Motivation & Engagement

Whether your classes have already started or will soon be starting, it’s never too early to be thinking about student motivation and engagement.

First, what worked well in the past? Was it a specific assignment, topic, methodological approach, or grading structure? Past successes are certainly nothing to sneeze at – and a logical place to begin looking if your goal is to increase motivation and engagement.

Motivation is, I think, the trickier piece, in part because it seems to be the one over which the instructor has the least control. Of course, some of this depends on how you think about motivation. Here’s a little excerpt from a recent study concerning motivation and online learning:

Existing research into motivation in online environments has tended to use one of two approaches. The first adopts a trait-like model that views motivation as a relatively stable, personal characteristic of the learner. Research from this perspective has contributed to the notion that online learners are, on the whole, intrinsically motivated. The alternative view concentrates on the design of online learning environments to encourage optimal learner motivation. Neither approach acknowledges a contemporary view of motivation that emphasises the situated, mutually constitutive relationship of the learner and the learning environment . . . . In this study, learners were found to be not primarily intrinsically motivated. Instead, student motivation was found to be complex, multifaceted, and sensitive to situational conditions.

That context matters is hardly news, but it certainly is reassuring. It suggests that there are choices the instructor can make that might increase student motivation – leading to a better class environment and more learning. Yes, please! (And, I’d hazard to say, this is as true for in-person classes as for online classes.)

The authors conclude that instructors should:

. . . be cognisant of the important role they play in influencing learner motivation when designing learning activities. Most importantly, the relevance and value of the task (e.g., online discussions) need to be clearly identified and linked to learning objectives to help learners understand how the activity can aid in the realisation of personal goals, aspirations, and interests, both in the short and longer term. By offering meaningful choices (i.e., not just option choices) to learners that allow them to pursue topics that are of interest to them, the perceived value of the activity is further enhanced. Finally, by establishing frequent, ongoing communication with learners, where they feel able to discuss issues in an open and honest manner, practitioners are in a better position to accurately monitor and respond to situational factors that could potentially undermine learner motivation.

The take-away? Use those learning objectives and keep the lines of communication open.

Getting specific, let’s talk about a common way that instructors make learning relevant: case studies. Here’s a great piece on case studies in the humanities, written by the Office of Instructional Development at the University of North Dakota. Even if your subject area isn’t the humanities, if you’re using case studies in your classes (or perhaps just thinking about it), I really, really recommend giving this piece a read. There’s a very rich discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of using case studies, including perspectives from health sciences, engineering, feminist theory, and philosophy.

On the issue of engagement and specific techniques, there’s also a great discussion on think-pair-share over at the blog run by UC Davis’ Center for Excellence in Teaching. They suggest a repeated framework of a brief lecture followed by students thinking independently, then conversing with a classmate, and finally sharing their opinions with the class. This might become a bit tiresome over and over for the whole class period, but the comments make some great points about active learning. Do you use think-pair-share? How often? And do you have any twists on the approach to keep it exciting?

Last, bringing it back to the students, Faculty Focus had a piece about five strategies for engaging millennial students. As crucial factors, they identify: research-based methods, relevance, rationale, relaxed learning environment, and rapport with the instructor. What do you think? Which, in your experience, seems to be the most important? Alternately, if different factors might be important to different students, how can you reasonably make sure you are reaching all your students?

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