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Motivating Your Students: Part One

The more thought, time and energy your students invest in the work of your course, the more deeply they will learn. Yet given all the demands on students' time, they may not focus as much attention on your course as you would hope, especially if your class is out of their field of primary interest. If you are teaching an introductory or non-majors class, knowing something about student motivation can be especially helpful. The research on learning tells us that students are most motivated when 1) they value what they are learning and 2) when they believe they can be successful learning new or unfamiliar material. In this month's Scholar as Teacher tip-sheet, we address the first of these conditions for motivation; in March, we will provide strategies for encouraging the second.

In order to create an environment in which students will value what they are learning, you might:

  • Explain why you are interested in the topic. Why do you believe your discipline's ways of thinking are important? How has learning this material enabled you to answer creative and interesting questions as a scholar?
  • Give students questions or assignments that enable them to see connections between learning in your class and learning in other courses. For example: How does knowing historical context enrich the reading of a novel? How will an understanding of the properties of fluids prove important to their work in chemical engineering?
  • Ask students to reflect on how what they learn in your course can help them approach aspects of their lives more meaningfully. How do they see art or hear music differently once they have developed a vocabulary for talking about each? What do they see in themselves and their relationships when they view them through knowledge of human psychology or social behavior?
  • Structure learning so that students practice using course concepts or disciplinary ways of thinking to solve problems or answer pressing questions about, for instance, the physical world or the culture(s) they live in and among. How might they evaluate the latest diet in light of their knowledge of cellular metabolism? How might they evaluate U.S. foreign policy in light of their historical knowledge of diplomacy or their encounter with other cultures through anthropology, literature or geography?
  • Underscore how knowledge and skills developed in your course can be transferred to other contexts, including their professional lives. Sometimes novice learners wonder how studying English, for instance, can prepare them for vocations other than teaching English. You might make the case that critical thinking and writing skills are essential for engaging political or legal discourse, for making and communicating decisions in contexts as various as businesses, non-profits and laboratories.

Adapted from Marilla D. Svinicki's Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Anker Publishing, Boston, MA: 2004.