Motivating Students 1: General Considerations

We all know that student motivation is essential to the success of a class because of the following :

  • motivated students listen more attentively
  • motivated students are more participatory
  • motivated students learn better and remember more

Students, of course, enter our classes with established motivational patterns, but we should not imagine that these constitute some kind of academic predestination. Although overarching attitudes and habits of mind do not change rapidly, they can indeed change and specific attitudes towards specific classes can change quite dramatically, even within the space of a semester. Many of us remember, from our own lives, a class that we began with low motivation and ended with great enthusiasm and an energized participation level.

Because motivating students is so crucial, I will be devoting several e-mails to discussion of this complex task. This first note will consider some important general facts about motivation. The material of this and subsequent reflections is taken from both an IDEA paper (William Cashin, Motivating Students, 1979) and my own personal experience. I will send these materials pasted into the body of the e-mail, but also attached as a separate file for those of you who keep these e-mails.

Some important considerations about motivating students are the following:

  1. Be realistic.

    Focus on improving, rather than perfecting, student motivation. Often the small improvements that you can encourage within one semester are the seeds from which larger changes in student attitude will grow over time. Be sure to congratulate the student (and yourself) for these small changes.
  2. Be patient.

    Changes may happen slowly, but can still happen. Remember: your ability to be relentlessly optimistic about student learning and growth can encourage students to develop greater patience and perseverance.
    • Work towards optimal motivation, not maximum motivation. Students can be motivated by interest and drive or by anxiety and fear. It is particularly important to monitor anxiety motivation because a student can be derailed by too little or too much. With no anxiety students can be complacent and lazy; with too much they can be immobilized by fear of failure. In other words, students can be disengaged because of debilitating levels of anxiety or because of complacency. Since both conditions result in the same student response, you should watch carefully to judge how to best approach an individual student.
      • Note: The whiny confrontation with a high-anxiety student wanting to argue over every little detail (that moment that many of us dread) is often an important opportunity to challenge excess anxiety and point the student in a better direction. You can help by addressing both the content of the student’s concern (the particular point in question) and the process (the high level of stress and anxiety driving the student).
      • Since anxiety often connects to low self-image, you can encourage reduction of anxiety most effectively by affirming students’ worth and recognizing the value of their genuine accomplishments and talents. You may need to remind them that medical schools are looking for people, not perfection. Help the student put grades into the proper perspective. But be careful about sounding critical. Criticizing students for being anxious may only add to the underlying problem by increasing low self-image.
      • Work at not hearing students’ questions as criticism and at not responding defensively. Remember: your ability to look at where you could improve without feeling personally devalued models for students the very trait you need them to develop.
      • Note: Because the goal is the right amount of anxiety you may need to combine push and encouragement, exhortation and praise.
  3. Be persistent.

    Do not expect students to renegotiate motivation during a single conversation or after a single comment in class. Your work to motivate students should be multi-level and ongoing.
    • Make short statements to encourage students every class period
    • Be consistent in your attitude
    • Help students see that better motivation will improve their academic life
    • Remind them that short-term pain can lead to long-term gain; learning is hard, but knowing is fun and learning will eventually lead to knowing
    • Be positive about students’ ability to change motivation and to learn
  4. Create positive classroom conditions

    that encourage student motivation. The elements below correlate strongly with high student motivation. They are listed in order of strength of correlation.
    • Enthusiastic and expressive instructors
    • Clear and organized presentation of course material
    • Demonstration of the importance and significance of course material
    • Flexibility and variety of approaches
    • Clearly perceived desire to help students learn
    • Presentation of material to aid retention