Faculty Focus


Student Motivation: Moving Beyond "Leading a Horse to Water"

When it comes to student motivation, does the axiom, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” apply? Although I believe that, as instructors, we cannot force motivation and learning upon students, we do play a vital role regarding student motivation and a student’s ability to gain knowledge and proficiency in the subject matter.

As a business owner and an organizational leader, I stress to managers and staff the need to motivate employees. I ask them to begin the process by making sure the de-motivators such as ambiguity, harshness, narcissism, hubris, bullying, and anger are never reverted to regarding an employee. I believe the process of motivating students begins the same way, in that we must first remove the de-motivators. My experience as an instructor and former student tells me student motivation increases when:

  • Instruction ambiguity is removed. Students need clear, consistent directions and guidance to respond correctly.
  • Instructors provide timely and clear answers to questions. Students do not ask a question because they forecast needing the answer two days later; they need the answer now. Respond quickly and avoid the de-motivating tactic of answering a question with another question. Invite follow-up questions if necessary, yet ensure the answer clarifies the issue. Strive to keep the communication channels open.
  • Instructor feedback and grading is consistent. Conflicting comments and inconsistent grading will lead to confusion and lack of motivation. When students aren’t sure what you want, they get frustrated and stop trying.
  • Students understand the instructor’s expectations. Consider formally posting what you expect from your students and what they can expect from you. I suggest including a late policy, required level of participation, use of outside resources, format and structure, and degree of expected originality.
  • The instructor is available. An engaged, personable, accessible instructor is far more motivating than a seemingly unapproachable, detached, “I’m too busy to help you” professor.

A frustrated, irritated, stressed student is a de-motivated student. When a student needs help (verbalized or not), we need to be attentive and understanding. As a proponent of servant leadership, I prefer to react with kindness and clarity. Although my message is clear and forthright, the tone is nonconfrontational, supportive, and encouraging. I think we have a choice; we can sit back and grade whatever the student submits (or enter zeros for no submission) or we can recognize when students are falling behind, intervene early, and make an attempt to ignite or re-ignite the student’s motivation to learn the concepts and exit the course with an above average grade. I believe if we as instructors clearly exhibit our level of motivation to see our students succeed, a portion of our enthusiasm will be transferred to the students. If we react and interact with students using de-motivating tactics and behaviors, that too will show up in our students.

Can we motivate every student to succeed? Certainly not, but we must never stop trying. Removing de-motivators from our communication style, guidance, and instructions is a good first step. My final thoughts on leading horses to water: some we cannot lead, some are not thirsty, some are stubborn, yet while we have them corralled in the classroom, we can strive to ensure the water is clear, clean, and enticing.

Dr. Ronald C. Jones, associate faculty, Forbes School of Business at Ashford University; president, Ronald C. Jones, Inc.