Encouraging Student Motivation

So here’s the setup.  I was given an opportunity to design my own learning experience in a class based on participatory research in science education.  As a teacher interested in the motivation of students, I decided to try out a few ideas I had about student motivation in education.

Hypothesis: Students are motivated by personal choice (the ability to choose specifically what they are to learn), by “presenting” their work on a larger “stage” (like posting their work online for other people’s feedback), and by removing the distraction of grades (free to focus on the learning process and discover intrinsic motivation).

First, I would like to recognize that these three motivational conditions are only a few of the conditions that I believe set the stage for helping students feel motivated to learn.  I only wanted to focus on three so that I could think deeper about their specific effects.  So here are my reflections from the past semester.

What I did (or my professor did) to set up the three conditions for motivation

The professor offered a large amount of control of the learning experience to the students.  I was able to choose exactly what I wanted to research (based on science education) and how I wanted to do it.  I was also allowed to decide on how I would share my research and learning experience and how I would be assessed.

1. The professor allowed me to choose exactly what I was going to learn.

2. I decided to post my learning process on my blog to show how I was learning and to get feedback from people around the world (potentially).

3. I decided to minimize the negative effects of grades by creating a pass/fail rubric where a pass would result in receiving a mark equal to my current grade point average.  The rubric outlined how I would show critical reading, reflective writing, deep thinking, and conscious action.  I designed a student contract detailed the types of things I would engage in throughout the semester.

What effect did three conditions have on my motivation to learn

1. As a student, being able to design my own learning environment was very motivating and empowering.  And because I was already interested in the motivation of students, I did not find it difficult to outline the types of things I would be doing to learn about motivation.  I feel that my past year at university (especially a class on assessment) and my new found purpose in learning (learning to become a better teacher) primed me to be motivated by personal choice.

If I would have been assigned a specific topic to research and didn’t care about what I was learning, I would only put out the minimum effort.  This describes a large chunk of my education.  To get by, I’ve learned how to jump through the hoops and play the education games.  I know how to take effective notes, write a decent essay, ask questions when I don’t understand, cram for a quiz or test, guess on T/F, multiple choice, and matching.  But my skill in winning at school should not be confused with an underlying motivation to learn.  The education gaming skills are more like survival skills.

Some of my classmates found this personal choice freedom and responsibility a bit uncomfortable at first.  For some, it was intimidating to come up with a semester long concept or item to research.  I imagine that giving students personal choice in smaller amounts (for smaller lengths of time) may help students build up to a semester-long, self-guided assignment.

2. First, I would change the wording of this motivation condition to “document learning” instead of “present learning” (concept from Dean Shareski).  It is better to document the process of learning than to focus only on a snap shot of the “final” day of learning.  Measuring learning is perhaps one of the greatest mistakes we make as educators.  How does that sit with you…try it on and let me know.

At the start of the semester, I was apprehensive.  I thought blogging and tweeting would be a giant time black-hole, like facebook. But both tweeting and blogging turned out to become powerful tools in my learning process.  At first, I was not very motivated to share my ideas on a blog for all to see.  I wanted everything to be perfect (like a presentation) because it was going to be released into the Internet and could never again be retracted.  This made everything I did even more time consuming.  But after a while I starting to lower my “final project” mentality and embraced the “this where I am so far” mentality.  I started to feel freer to post ideas and became more efficient with time.

After getting connected to other educators and classmates, I started getting comments (feedback) on my blog and starting interacting with them on their blogs or twitter.  Very soon, I began to see the potential for sharing ideas and resources.  And now, I feel like it’s been worth it.  I am now motivated to post my ideas online as a way to learn more efficiently and to gain a world perspective.

3. Grades still motivated me to do school work.  I had two classes that were focused on grades, and two that de-emphasis grades.  When the deadlines for my physics labs came up, I set aside the work in the non-graded classes to focus on the grade game.  I found it very difficult to deal with one class without grades and one with grades during the same semester.  This has made me re-think the dream of teaching high school without grades when other teachers hang on to grades.  I think it would have to be school-wide policy or I would stick with using grades.  I fear that under stress, my students wouldn’t bother doing their work for my class.

There may be a kind of compromise, by de-emphasising grades, but this would require some skill.  The alternative school that Shauna (one of my mentoring teachers) teaches at does not give students or parents grades, even though they do compile grades for the provincial government.  I’ve also heard of teachers collecting evidence of learning throughout the semester and allowing students to decide (under the guidance of the teacher) what grade they deserve for the course.  Perhaps someday we will use documentation of learning (maybe through a blog) as a way to show what students know and what students can do.

Some of what I am taking away from this learning experience

Take care in how you set up your classroom.  Your philosophy of education is important.  Learn how to create an environment that supports their motivation for learning.

Take care in how you teach.  Your teaching skills and strategies will take you far.  Use your teaching ability to engage your students when their motivation is not enough.

Get rid of grades and focus on feedback.  If you have to give grades, only give them on summative assessments and a very few formative assessments. Decide on how things are going to be mark together as a class.  Maybe someday documenting your student’s learning will replace report cards and be used to get into university and receive bursaries instead of using grades.

Give students choice in what and how they learn.  Connect your students to other people outside of the classroom and gain a broader source of feedback and expertise.

What do you think?  Let me know.

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About danieljatkins

I learn better without grades!
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