Faculty Focus


Motivating Students: Highlights from Minds Online

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This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on February 24, 2015. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. 

It’s hardly a new subject. Every teacher knows it’s essential, and every teacher tries to motivate students. But it’s just as true that all teachers have experienced those days when they don’t feel particularly motivated, when the content seems old and tired, and when students (sometimes the whole class) are clearly anything but motivated by what’s happening in class. What to do then? If only there were a list of surefire strategies, those tricks that always get students and teachers fired up and moving forward. But motivation doesn’t lend itself to easy answers or surefire solutions. Clearly there are things that teachers can do that work with some reliability, but why and how they motivate are vexingly complex. There is much to be learned about motivation.

The problem is that learning about motivation isn’t all that easy. Studies of motivation number in the thousands. Old and new theories abound. Whole careers are devoted to its study. Those who research in this area write for others working in the area. It is one of those subjects where it’s almost impossible to know where or how to start the learning process. So, when someone writes an informative, engaging overview filled with examples of how what’s known about motivation can be applied in face-to-face and online courses, it’s a gift—to be appreciated and used! Thank Michelle Miller for just such a chapter, which appears in her new book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology.

Here are some highlights from this 30-page chapter. Miller, a psychology professor, teaches an online introductory psych course in which she begins the discussion of motivation with these questions: “Why did you even get out of bed this morning? What drove you to abandon that warm, comfortable environment in favor of less pleasant, more energy-demanding pursuits?” Her goal is to get students “to open their minds to some of the big questions about the motivational side of human psychology: What is it about our psychological makeup that allows us (sometimes, anyway) to choose the harder path over an easier one?” (p. 165) Essentially, that’s how she defines motivation. “It is the study of the mechanisms that put you in motion, pushing you toward certain things and pushing you away from others” (p. 165).

As those of us who teach regularly discover, just putting the learning opportunities out there for students isn’t enough. Miller says students must be “enticed.” Most often we do that with points and grades, and that does get most students moving. But they’re motivated for the wrong reasons. They don’t want to learn what we’re teaching, they aren’t particularly interested in the skills we deem important—they want the points. They want the grades and the degree so they can get on with their lives. But some students do get motivated for the right reasons, and often a teacher plays an influential role. “Beyond just rewards and punishments, motivating students has an elusive, inspirational quality to it—something that skilled teachers seem to be able to do just by their mere presence.” (p. 166) There is something about motivation that’s contagious—fire in a teacher can ignite students.

A chapter section on “Classic Research on Motivation” begins with this observation. “If one thing has emerged from decades of psychology research on motivation, it’s that there is no single, universal motivating force. Rather, theorists concur that any given behavior on any given occasion reflects a combination of multiple contributing factors” (p. 168). Among the theories discussed in this section are self-determination and the work of Edward Deci on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This theory posits that three basic needs motivate people: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. “We strive to be good at things, to develop bonds with other people, and to make our own choices” (p. 169).

Although they don’t often call it self-efficacy, most teachers regularly see how beliefs about ability affect behavior. If students believe effort will pay off, that motivates them to expend effort. The more recent work of Carol Dweck on mindset identifies another piece of the motivation puzzle related to self-efficacy. So many of our students have a “fixed mindset.” They believe “that people have a set amount of intelligence that is essentially unchangeable,” as contrasted with those who carry a “growth mindset” believing “that intelligence (1) isn’t set in stone and (2) isn’t the main determinant of success or failure.” (pp. 174-5) The fixed mindset gives birth to the idea that if you have an ability or talent, say, for math or writing, you do those things easily, virtually without trying, and if you have no ability, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you aren’t going to be good at math or writing.

Miller explains how students with fixed mindsets think about tests and graded assignments. They see tests as being designed to measure how smart they are, and so those exams become “anxiety- provoking ordeals. Trying to raise your scores through extra efforts [presents] a psychic catch-22. You need to study to get the good grade that proves you’re smart, but needing to study must mean that you aren’t actually all that smart to begin with” (p. 175). This fear of inadequate ability explains why many students opt for easy assignments and courses. It’s why teachers should avoid telling students how smart, bright, or talented they are. Those kinds of comments support the fixed mindset. Rather, teachers ought to offer “feedback that highlights factors like working hard, choosing good strategies, taking on a challenging assignment, or improving one’s performance” (p. 176). If there’s good news about mindsets, it’s that they are based on beliefs and beliefs can be changed.

Online courses offer special challenges when it comes to applying the research on motivation, Miller believes. “Even the most sophisticated forms of online communication can’t replicate the motivating force of being in a classroom surrounded by other students engaged in the work, their enthusiasm sustained by the personal presence of a dedicated, inspiring instructor” (p. 177). She suggests a number of ways teachers can respond to these challenges. Writing about those “all- important first moments” when online students first make contact with the course, she recommends that teachers “steer the focus toward the ‘why’ of the course—why anyone would study this topic, why this area of study could change the world for the better, why you will be a more capable person after you complete it—and away from the “what”—what is required, what you have to do and in what order, what the grading policies are” (p. 179). Procrastination is a perennial problem in online courses, made worse, according to Miller if the “habit” of regular (if not daily) course contact is not established right from the beginning of the course.

The chapter and book are focused on online learning, but the overviews, relevant to all kinds of teaching, offered in the chapters on attention, memory, and thinking provide the same amazing integration of research. She brings together research done across decades and in various disciplines. The applications to online instruction are especially timely and specific. Miller is not afraid to propose how theoretical and empirical knowledge can be applied concretely, in terms of activities, assignments, and ways to structure courses and assess learning. Equally impressive is Miller’s writing style, which is clear, succinct, personable, and engaging. She writes what she knows with commitment. The entire book gets my highest rating—it’s one not to miss.

Reference: Miller, M. D. Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.