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Student Motivation: Problem Solved?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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As faculty members, we need to take ownership of student motivation, as often it could be things we are doing-and not doing that causes students' enthusiasm to wane. Below are three elements that are in full control of any competent faculty member, that if manipulated properly, will often improve student moral and motivation.


The posting below looks at ways to increase student motivation in the classroom. It is by Paul E. Garrett, Dean of Academic Affairs, ITT Technical Institute, Columbia. South Carolina. He can be reached at:


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: From Special Occasion to Regular Work


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Student Motivation: Problem Solved?


In my years of teaching and developing faculty members, I have heard every excuse in the book for why some of our -mostly non-traditional--students aren't performing up to par. Most of the excuses come in the form of statements like, "She's just not motivated", He just here because his parents want him here." "He's just using up his GI bill," "She doesn't want to be here." or -horror of horrors- "He doesn't belong here." These statements point to elements that may seem to the teacher to be beyond their control. When asked "who is responsible for student motivation at an institution of higher learning, faculty members will often put the onus solely on the student. After all aren't they all adults? Shouldn't faculty members be concerned delivering the wisdom of their years and inculcating the students with the knowledge and skills required to master the subject rather than worrying about thing s like who wants to learn and who doesn't?

In a perfect world, high school graduates would all arrive on campus ready to become little sponges of knowledge; to hang on every word of their wizened professors; show up early and often; to stay late, and pepper the teacher with cogent, topical questions that move the learning in the right direction.

Too often this is not the case. Sometimes faculty members do wonder if the student realizes how much tuition money they are frittering away. As faculty members, we need to take ownership of student motivation, as often it could be things we are doing-and not doing that causes students' enthusiasm to wane. Below are three elements that are in full control of any competent faculty member, that if manipulated properly, will often improve student moral and motivation.

1) VALUE: Do the students value the course material? Do they see an immediate, practical application? Or is it something they'll use in two three or four years. The sooner the students can apply their newfound knowledge, the better. Is there a lab with the course? Can you point out how the classroom theory is going to be applied in their labs? Can you build an application into your theory course, or apply it to the world outside the classroom? Are you, as the teacher, enthusiastic about the subject? Or is it something you have to get through so you can get back to your research? If you act bored with the class or topic, that will lower the value to the students. Even if it's not your favorite subject, even if you've taught it a hundred times, even if you see it as an obstacle to your "real'' work, look for ways to make it interesting to you and at the least, make it valuable to the students.

We are a technical school. We teach technical and computer subjects and our students often don't understand why English Composition is important. I explain to them that being able to write an excellent resume or proposal, once mastered, will always be virtually the same, that this will help them write excellent lab reports in their other classes, and that while they will constantly be re-learning the technology, it is their ability to communicate effectively that will have the most impact on their future careers.

CONFIDENCE: Students are often reluctant to reveal a lack of confidence in their ability to master the material for fear of losing the respect of their peers or their teachers. Research shows that overconfidence is often as dangerous as lack of confidence in learning a skill. As a teacher it is a good idea to look for ways to boost the confidence of your students by offering plenty of positive reinforcement, and adding enough challenge to the course to prevent students from becoming overconfident and having the course lose value for them. Reward students for critical thinking and participating in class discussions, even if their answers are off the mark, while gently nudging them in the right direction. This type of corrective feedback pays off.

MOOD: What is the mood of your classroom? Is there an excitement about the subject and an eagerness to move forward? Or do students drag into the room and sit sullenly, averting eye contact with you or their fellow students? Are you one of those teachers who begin the semester with "Look to your left and your right: One of you won't be here at graduation."? I have always believed that there is an element of showmanship in good teaching. Whether you believe that or not, research has shown that lightening the mood in a classroom increases motivation. We've all shown up for meetings wherein the mood was dull and drab, or even hostile. How much more productive are those meetings where the atmosphere is upbeat and the facilitator kept things on an even keel. Many of the behaviors that add value to the class also improve the mood. Enthusiasm is contagious. So is boredom. In "Talking about Leaving", a study of why students drop out of science and engineering programs, the authors reported one of the main student complaints was a lack of enthusiasm by their instructor. The students reported that their faculty member didn't have time to answer their questions, but always referred them to the TA. Others said their faculty member came to class unprepared or made them feel like teaching the class was a necessary evil that they had to endure so that they could get back to their research. Keep an eye on the mood of your class. If necessary, stop the class and address the issue: "It seems that you guys are out of sorts this morning. What can I do to help us get on the right track?" Often the very act of letting the students know you recognize their mood and are willing to work with them may lighten the atmosphere.

If your students' motivation seems to be flagging, before blaming them, take a step back and look at the value the students hold for the subject, their confidence, and the mood of the class. Chances are, if you can improve one or more of these areas, you can improve your students' motivation and improved learning will almost certainly follow.


Seymore, Elaine, and Nancy Hewitt. Talking About Leaving. Boulder: Westview, 1997.

Stolovich, Harold & Erica Keeps. Tellin' Ain't Training. Alexandria, VA.: ASTD, 2003