As we prepare for fall semester and a “new normal” on campus, many of us are trying to understand students’ changing needs and expectations—for our individual classes, our majors and curricula, and our institution. A recent survey from Inside Higher Education and College Pulse examined several issues about the struggles and needs of our students in the coming academic year.
Most notable to me was the chart of academic concerns students mentioned, with these issues at the top of the list:
- Feeling unmotivated: 65%
- Difficulty concentrating: 58%
- Mental health: 50%
- Feeling behind academically: 48%
According to these findings, we can anticipate that more than half of our students will struggle with motivation and concentration, and about half will struggle with their mental health, which will be both impacted by and feed into these first two issues.
So, what can we do to better motivate students… or at least set up the conditions in our courses for them to find their own motivations? According to some work by our colleagues at Vanderbilt University, two of the key factors that appear in various models of motivation are value and relevance.
We can help students find value in our assignments by being clear about why they are completing the tasks—how an assignment is connected to the course’s learning outcomes; what good the related skills will be in the course, the major, a future career, or life in general; and how this apparently small assignment is linked to larger skills that may be more apparently valuable. One simple model for clarifying this value is Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT), which has a fairly simple framework that highlights this value and structures assignments for clarity. TiLT has a strong research base behind it that shows its impact on student success, particularly students from underrepresented groups.
We can help students find relevance in part by clarifying value, but also by helping them find connections to their own interests. This might involve letting students select project topics that are meaningful to them, perhaps studying how a concept plays out in their discipline or community. Or how they might be able to use their developing knowledge to address a challenge in their hometown. Students might also find relevance through service-learning, where they can learn new ideas and skills while applying them in service to a local agency that is most meaningful to them, addressing issues like food insecurity or homelessness, or helping children through tutoring or mentoring programs.
Motivating students isn’t about entertaining them or even providing motivations for them. It involves setting the conditions in our assignments that allow students to find their own value and relevance, to find their own meaningfulness. As someone who taught first-year writing for decades (and heard “I’m here because it’s a required course” far too many times), I know motivation can be difficult, particularly in core classes. But with some flexibility in assignments and some time spent in values clarification activities, we can help students find personal meaning, value, and relevance in our classes. And that can address some of these top concerns students are carrying into the fall semester.
What are you doing to help students find motivation in your classes? Leave a comment to share your experiences.