By Doug Ward
Student motivation is one of the most vexing challenges that instructors face. Students can’t learn if they aren’t engaged, and serious classroom material often fails to pique the interest of a generation that has grown up with the constant stimulation of smartphones, social media and video on demand.
Some instructors argue that motivation should be up to students, who are paying to come to college, after all. Most certainly, instructors can’t make students learn. Students have to cultivate that desire on their own. Instructors can take many steps to stoke that desire to learn, though, by drawing students into subject matter and into learning in general.
In a pedagogy class I’m teaching this semester, students and I worked through some of the steps we can take to motivate students. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it touches on concrete steps that any instructor can take to draw students into class material and into learning.
Find links. Helping students make connections among seemingly unrelated topics deepens their thinking and expands their ability to learn. By tying their interests (say, music) to more challenging subject matter (the workings of the brain, for instance, or American history), we can motivate students to further their exploration and broaden their learning. As John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking write in How People Learn, helping students understand the usefulness of a subject can improve learning, as can making sure material is neither too difficult nor too easy and providing opportunities to share with others.
Vary class time. Approaching class in the same way every time lulls students into a routine that can lead to their tuning out or shutting down. Put yourself in students’ shoes: They may have three or four classes in a single day. That alone makes concentration a challenge. Things like breaking a 75-minute class into three or four small topics, playing a short video or audio clip at some point, or even having students stand up for a minute or two can break a routine and refocus attention.
Give students choices. We all need some sense of control over what we do and how we do something. Giving students choices on project topics, readings or quiz questions gives them at least some sense of control and ownership.
Use hands-on activities. Evidence is clear that active learning, in which students engage in discussions, work on problems, or take on questions in groups, is a far better means of instruction than lecture. All instructors need time to explain things to students, but the real learning begins when students engage with material in authentic ways.
Move around the room. Moving about the classroom or encouraging students to move about and talk with classmates can help maintain students’ attention. This also helps instructors get to know students better.
Encourage students. A few words of encouragement can go a long way in keeping students engaged. Remind students that learning takes time and that their peers struggle, as well. Don’t resort to false praise, but point out good elements in students’ work and help them build on those elements.
Make individual connections. Show your humanity and help students understand who you are as a person. That doesn’t mean befriending students, but learning their names, remembering faces, and talking to students about their interests and aspirations helps personalize the learning process and helps draw students into that process.
Use humor. Instructors don’t have to be stand-up comedians, but displaying a sense of humor makes them more relatable, diminishes anxiety and sends a message that learning can be fun.
Use games. The gamification of learning has grown considerably since the turn of the century, but games that help students learn have been part of learning for as long as there have been games. So using a game strategy in a class doesn’t require great technical know-how. For instance, I have created “Jeopardy” games in PowerPoint to help students learn grammar, and crossword puzzles to help them practice research skills. Those strategies require preparation, but I’ve found them very effective.
There are many other approaches to engaging students. Some require prep time and trial and error from instructors, but many others require little more than an open mind. We’d love to hear the strategies that work best for you.
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.