|Students' motivation determines, directs and sustains what they do to learn.|
As adults we have choice over what and where we study. This means that our motivation plays a crucial role in deciding how hard we work, the learning behaviours we adopt, and ultimately our chances of success.
By understanding what drives motivation, you can help create environments and courses in which students achieve their goals.
Goals can be seen as the framework that directs people’s behaviour. According to Ford, they relate to a person’s intellectual and creative pursuits, social and interpersonal relationships, identity and self-concept, needs for safety and material possessions, and desires to be productive and competent in the world (Ford, 1992).
- A student’s goals might be aligned with or in conflict with your goals!
- A student often has several goals at the same time. For example: Get a good grade, make friends and deepen knowledge. Research shows that students who have multiple goals are more successful than those with a single goal (Valle et al., 2003).
- Students can also have goals that conflict. For example: Go to the pub with friends and get a good grade in tomorrow’s exam!
There are three interconnecting factors that influence how motivated a student is to pursue their goal: They need to see that the goal has value, expect they can achieve it, and believe the environment is supported.
In order to be motivated, students need to see a value in the goal. After all, why would they bother to work hard towards something that they didn’t see a value in? Let’s consider three different sources of value:
Connect the material to students’ interests
Students are more likely to see value in things that interest them. Are there examples and activities you can select that will tap into students’ interests?
Provide authentic, real-world tasks
This helps students see the value and relevance in abstract concepts and theories.
Show relevance to students’ current academic lives
Help students see the connections between their current course and others as building blocks to achieving future goals.
Demonstrate the relevance of higher-level skills to students’ future professional lives
For example, quantitative reasoning, persuasive writing and team work might all be skills students practice in your course, but they might not see the immediate benefit. Explaining the importance of these highly valued skills in the workplace can increase their perceived value.
Identify and reward what you value
Be clear about what you value and communicate this to students. For example, if you value teamwork, let students know what behaviours you look for and consider setting a teamwork evaluation exercise at the end of an extended activity.
Show your own passion and enthusiasm for the discipline
To be motivated, students need to believe they are capable of identifying and doing the work needed to achieve their goal. Plus, they need to expect that if they do work, they will succeed.
Students who don’t expect a positive outcome are demotivated to adopt the behaviours they need to succeed.
Past experience plays a big role in how likely a student is to expect a positive outcome. If they have had positive experiences in the past, they are more likely to believe they can do it again in the future. This is especially true if they believe that it was their own actions that brought about the result — for example, by working hard or by demonstrating appropriate behaviours.
Students are less likely to expect a positive outcome if they believe the reasons for past achievements were down to luck or ease of tasks.
Align objectives, assessments, and instructional strategies
This helps students see where their effort is leading, helping them feel in control of their learning.
Identify an appropriate level of challenge
It’s essential that you set challenging but achievable goals for your students. In order to do this, you need to know their current ability level.
Create assignments that provide the appropriate level of challenge
Gauge the tight level: Too hard and students won’t expect success if they put in the work. Too easy and they won’t see the value in investing the effort.
Provide early success opportunities
Giving students the opportunity to achieve success early on will help them expect a positive outcome in future assignments.
Articulate your expectations
Once students know the goal and what they need to do to achieve it, they are more likely to have a positive expectation of success — particularly if you communicate your belief that they can overcome challenges and are available for support if they struggle.
Rubrics are an excellent way to clearly state what performance you expect from students.
Provide targeted feedback
By giving students timely and constructive feedback, you can help them adapt what they do in their next attempt.
Make sure that students' work is graded fairly and consistently — especially if there are multiple.
Educate students about the ways we explain success and failure
Help students feel that outcomes are within their control. For example, have them focus on the nature of their study habits (when and how much they study), rather than things that are outside of their control (like “I’m just no good with numbers”).
Describe effective study strategies
Help students identify the types of behaviours that will lead to success.
We’ve said that for students to be motivated they need to see value in what they're learning and expect that their efforts will be successful. However, this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What you do to create a supportive learning environment will be another critical factor in students' motivation.
Let’s looks at the type of student behaviours you might see if one of the three factors that influence student motivation is neglected. The image below is taken from How Learning Works and is based on the work of Hansen (1989) and Ford (1992).
By providing a supportive learning environment, in which students see the value of the work and believe they can achieve their goals, you are likely to see high motivation.
Where possible, give students options about how they approach the learning — for example, by giving choice over a topic for a paper. This allows them to choose one they see value in. Giving options also helps students feel more in control of their learning and can therefore increase their expectation of success.
Reflection is a vital part of learning. You can help students increase future motivation by asking them to reflect on an activity to help draw out value — and to look for strengths and weaknesses in their approach that they could replicate or adapt next time around. For example, ask: “What was the most valuable part of this exercise?” (value) or “What would you do differently next time?” (expectation of future success).
- Students' goals are what students work towards. They might have several goals at the same time. Their goals might conflict with each other – or with yours!
- By providing a supportive learning environment, in which students see the value of the work believe they can achieve their goals, you are likely to see high motivation.
- If you see demotivated students in a supportive learning environment, analyse their behaviour and adopt strategies that help students see the value in the activity and/or increase their belief in a positive outcome.