Feed on

As we leave fall break and Daylight Savings Time behind, and look forward to Thanksgiving break and the end of the year, you may find that your students’ motivation is flagging. This is a good time to take stock of the plans you have for the remainder of your course and to think about ways to keep students engaged and inspired through the end of the semester.

Motivation is a complex phenomenon, but psychologists have broken it down into broad two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In education, extrinsic motivators include external rewards like grades and are related to the expectations of instructors, peers, and parents. Intrinsic motivators, by contrast, are related to the student’s own expectations and may include things like interest in the subject matter or a sense that what students are studying is relevant to their lives. Our classes are full of, and necessarily organized around, extrinsic motivators. But fostering intrinsic motivation is a key part of helping students reach their full potential.

One good way to increase intrinsic motivation is to promote student autonomy. When students feel ownership over their learning and a sense of empowerment in the classroom, they not only perform better on assigned tasks but also leave the course with a greater sense of satisfaction and a good deal of knowledge that will stick with them long past the final exam.

So, how can you increase students’ autonomy in your classes? One way is to treat students as active collaborators in the production of knowledge rather than passive receivers of it. Encourage students to see themselves as developing experts by asking them to explain concepts; engaging them in problem-solving or inquiry-based activities; encouraging multiple opinions and approaches; and allowing them to generate their own discussion questions or to take control of class conversation in some way.

You can also promote student autonomy by giving students meaningful control over the learning process. Consider your activities and assignments for the remainder of the semester: is there any way to incorporate student choice (within reasonable parameters) into those assignments or activities without making major changes? For example, you might let students choose their own topic for a final project, perhaps working from a list of approved topics you compile. You could likewise involve the students in creating the assessment criteria for such an assignment. You might also let students choose the topic of discussion, or the means by which that discussion is conducted, for one or two class days. Allowing your students to make these kinds of choices can increase both their investment in the course and their motivation to finish the semester strong.

Finally, you can help foster student autonomy by avoiding or deemphasizing external rewards and punishments. While extrinsic motivators have their place, psychological studies have shown that offering extrinsic rewards can actually decrease people’s intrinsic motivation. A key part of developing student autonomy is helping your students see the value not in the rewards system of the class but in the subject matter itself. Giving students the freedom and the tools to interest themselves in course content is one good way to beat the mid-semester slump.


Further Reading

Crone, I. & MacKay, C. (2007). Motivating today’s college students. Peer Review 9.

Garcia, Teresa & Pintrich, Paul R. (1996). The effects of autonomy on motivation and performance in the college classroom. Contemporary Educational Psychology 21, 477-486.

Gorham, J. & Millette, D.M. (1997). A Comparative Analysis of Teacher and Student Perceptions of Sources of Motivation and Demotivation in College Classes. Communication Education 46, 245- 61.

Lowman, J. (1990). Promoting motivation and learning. College Teaching 38, 136-140.

Motivating Students, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Niemiec, Christopher P. and Ryan, Richard M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education 7, 133-144.

Stefanou, Candice R., Perecevich, Kathleen C., DiCintio, Matthew, & Turner, Julianne C. (2004). Supporting autonomy in the classroom: Ways teachers encourage student decision-making and ownership. Educational Psychologist 39, 97-110.


Kaneb Center Resources

Fostering Student Motivation Through Instruction

Motivation and Learning

Keeping Students Motivated

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