Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic


Maybe Less Sentimental Forms of Student Motivation Will Do

by Jennifer Hall, PhD, CETLOE and Department of English

I’ve seen several education blogs recently discussing the idea of “intrinsic motivation.” I love the idea that there is some latent, innate form of motivation hiding in my students just waiting to be brought to life by the brilliance of my teaching strategies. I also have no problem believing that my students are innately curious, and I encourage every teacher to inspire that curiosity every chance they get. However, as we desperately struggle to capture our students’ attention in this impossible time, I worry that we’re moving away from the fundamentals, instead seeking to hold the wind in a net, as Wyatt puts it.  Lockdown forced all of us to get practical and prioritize, but the never-ending rollercoaster driven by COVID surge after surge may have also encouraged just a bit of magical thinking, as we’ve all slowly lost our minds. This may be particularly true for teachers who are desperate to figure out how to get our students back on track. The emphasis on intrinsic motivation that I’m seeing may be part of that magical thinking, and I’m not sure it’s helpful right now. Instead, I think we need to go back and embrace our practical, sour-dough-starter/hand-sewn-facemask tendencies to get ourselves and our students through this chaos.  


In their 2000 article Expectancy-Value Theory of Achievement Motivation, Allan Wigfield and Jacquelynne Eccles argue that student motivation can be based on two factors: their expectation of success and their perceived value of the ideas. Their explanations of the categories will sound familiar to anyone who has worked with us in CETLOE because many of the teaching strategies we adopt depend on them, but it might be helpful for us to look at them in isolation as we prepare for another strange fall semester.

According to Wigfield and Eccles, students’ motivation is in large part governed by their expectation of success. They argue that students are more motivated to attempt to learn when they feel competent, able to improve, in control, supported, and unrushed. In CETLOE, we often use terms like “growth mindset,” “metacognition,” “scaffolding,” “assignment choice,” and “high-touch teaching practices” to express these sentiments, but they’re not really complicated ideas. If you’re looking for ways to motivate your students to learn, make sure they feel like they can.  No one likes to waste time, particularly when we’ve all just spent a year reevaluating our priorities. If you want to keep your students motivated, focus on helping them understand that they can succeed. This starts on the very first day of class when you hand them a syllabus (see our syllabus design page) that explains the value of the course in terms that they can understand and that focuses more on what they can achieve rather than the penalties they’ll face if they fail. This motivational strategy continues with keeping their trust, and thus motivation, through consistent opportunities for small achievements. James Lang’s Small Teaching strategies, which we cover workshops through the semester, give students the sense that they CAN accomplish what you’re asking them to try by allowing them to engage in reflection and low-stakes tasks that emphasis practice rather than perfection.

Beyond feeling the expectation of success, students need to understand the value of what they’re learning. Here’s where our “intrinsic motivation” comes into play. It’s true that students CAN be genuinely, personally interested in an idea. Will that idea be relevant to YOUR discipline? Sometimes. Will it be relevant to your discipline AND relevant to the particular skill you’re trying to teach at any given moment? Maybe. We can’t really rely on “sometimes” or “maybe” to get us through an entire semester, though. Instead, we have to adopt new strategies. We could focus on the utility of it all, as College to Careers does with its NACE competencies, focusing on how their coursework translates to career readiness. Transparency in Learning and Teaching (check out our TiLT workshops) also relies on utility to motivate students. TiLT suggests that if we take the time to explain our process, our expectations, and the importance of the skills we’re teaching, then students will be more motivated to complete our assignments to the best of their ability. Of course, it’s not always easy and utility alone won’t always motivate them. Wigfield and Eccles remind us that our students are Economists at heart and judge everything through the lens of cost-benefit analysis. If they feel the cost is too high and the benefit is too low, they will lose motivation. If they feel that the time investment is too costly (either because of their competing course load or their job and family obligations), then they won’t be motivated to do the work if the benefit isn’t substantial. Likewise, if they anticipate that there is a high probability for failure, then they won’t put for the effort. Here is another place where Small Teaching can be helpful, and where you might consider scaffolding to break up the assignments and let them attempt the skill so that a little failure doesn’t hurt them. Here you might also consider offering assignment choice, which allows them to choose a mode of skill presentation they feel confident demonstrating. Combining that confidence with the utility introduced through TiLT could help them move beyond their focus on cost and benefit.

As you prepare your assignments this semester, strive to engage your students’ intrinsic motivation. There’s nothing more rewarding than a classroom full of curious students! Just in case, though, remember that there are other forms of motivation that might keep them engaged with their work and produce some solid learning, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of intrinsic motivation.

jenniferhall • August 17, 2021

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  1. Melissa McLeod September 8, 2021 - 3:53 pm Reply

    What a wonderfully helpful and beautifully written post!

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