PRISM Magazine On-Line  - December 1999
Teaching Toolbox
Teaching - Fire Up Your Students

by Phillip Wankat
and Frank Oreovicz

"Illustration by Dave ClarkWhy aren't students as motivated as we were?" goes the familiar cry. This lament paints the past with a nostalgic brush, and conveniently ignores those who are strongly motivated. But some students do need a wake-up call, and often the small things that educators can do—and avoid doing—have the biggest impact.

The naive view is that what the professor does and has the student do directly results in motivation. This view does not fit reality; in the same classroom, some students are motivated and others aren't, even though the professor's behavior is the same.

The actual interaction process is much more complicated. Everything the professor does—from making assignments, to lecturing, to smiling (or not)—must first be observed by the students, who then create plausible but not necessarily valid left-brain interpretations. Students process their interpretations to decide if they can succeed at a task, and if it seems worthwhile. Meanwhile, the professor observes and interprets students' actions. Of course, either party may misinterpret the other's behavior. And even if all interpretations are correct, some students will decide they can't succeed, and won't try.

To reduce communication gaps, make your messages as clear and specific as possible. Say "Read sections 10.2 to 10.5," instead of "You might want to look at some sections in chapter 10." Inform them of any behavior that irritates you. Respond to students by name, and when possible, ask students which options they prefer, such as turning in an assignment before or after vacation. As much as possible observe, but do not interpret, student actions. Sleeping in class is easy to interpret as negative, but that may be unfair to the student. Note the behavior, and talk to the student if the problem recurs.

Avoid abruptness, glaring, put-downs, blaming, yelling, swearing, controlling behavior, harsh grading procedures, and ignoring, all of which can reduce motivation. You can be nice and still be firm and require professional quality work.

To better understand shifting internal motivations, apply the hierarchical theory of motivation as explained in Abraham Maslow's Motivation and Personality, which states that people will immediately abandon advanced levels of motivation if a more basic need is not being satisfied. Basic physiological (air, water, food, and shelter) and safety needs must be met before students can focus on their studies. Involvement—both academically and socially—then becomes very important, because it satisfies the next level of needs, which are belonging and being loved. Involved students stay enrolled and usually graduate, while the uninvolved often leave. Learning names, being friendly and chatting with students, and encouraging teamwork and study groups are all things you can do as an educator to help satisfy these needs.

Classroom success can help students meet the next level, the need for esteem, which includes self-respect, achievement, and reputation. It is important to have some part of the course in which each student can excel. Praise students when they do excel, even if no grade is attached. Group projects are often an excellent way for the majority of the class to feel a sense of achievement. Conversely, tests with very low averages sap motivation; students feel bad if they receive a grade of 30, even if it is an A or B.

Students do need to learn to motivate themselves, hopefully reaching the highest level of motivation: self actualization, where they do their best because they enjoy it. But educators can help that process along by understanding what motivates students and what discourages them. Keeping those factors in mind while doing your job will keep the fires of knowledge in your classroom burning longer and brighter.


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