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The word “motivation” comes from a root that means “to move,” and really, motivation is about what moves us to begin something or to persist in a situation—in this case, a learning situation. Motivation is a driving force. It can be considered an external driving force, something that motivates us from the outside, or a psychological force that compels us toward an action or a goal from the inside.
Extrinsic motivation—such as money or job security as motivators—is reward-based. We’re moved to do something or persist because we want a reward of some kind that will come from completing the task. Intrinsic motivation is different. Curiosity, love of learning, the ability to use new knowledge and apply it to one’s own goals: all of these are things that are intrinsically motivating to people. They’re motivating because they’re enjoyable, or because they satisfy an internal psychological desire.
Studies by Deci and Ryan have shown that intrinsic motivation tends to produce much deeper and more sustained engagement and learning than extrinsic motivation. And these studies have been followed up by many other studies that tend to have similar results.
Deci’s 1996 book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, includes a theory called self-determination theory, based on three categories of intrinsic motivation that the author claims are universal to all human beings. He argues that these three categories (competence, connection, and autonomy) are actually needs that all of us have to meet in our lives in order to experience our optimal potential as humans.
When all three of these needs are met, according to self-determination theory, we sustain our desire to keep learning. We sustain our desire to produce, to keep producing, be creative, give our time and energy to others, and, in general, increase and sustain our desire to live all the roles that we play in our lives to the best of our ability. But when one of these three needs is not met in some area, our motivation may suffer.
So in any learning situation, the student would, ideally, have all three needs met in order to want to sustain that learning over time without the need for the reward of money or grades or some other extrinsic motivator.
Looking at practical applications of the theory, one of the ways to think about this is that each student has a unique motivational profile of underlying desire and drives; as an instructor, getting to know students well can often make obvious what the main motivators are for particular students. Most students want to get a good grade, but it is the intrinsic motivators, such as the need to gain competence in a course or the need to have a sense of choice or a sense of directing their own learning to some degree or another, that motivates students to succeed.
Each student will have a different mix of those needs. It’s often true, for example, that when professionals, as opposed to traditional students, come into an online class, their need to connect and network with others in the online format may not be as strong, and their need may be really more about gaining competence.
It is important for instructors to ask questions and reach out to students in order to learn more about their own specific motivational profiles. And, of course, if we were to ask them, “What is your motivational profile?” they probably wouldn’t have a clue what to say. But questions about what they most liked or enjoyed about the learning in a particular assignment, what aspect of the assignment they didn’t enjoy, or what was challenging for them—the answers to these questions give clues to their particular motivational profiles.
Not only can that help direct the learning in that course, but that feedback can be used in a redesign of a course later on. Before designing or improving an online course, ask some core questions: Why do people want to take the course? What is it that students are coming to class to gain? Are they there to learn skills? Are they there to tap into the creative potential of others who are working to solve complex issues in their workplaces?
Sometimes it’s fair to assume that students want connectedness with others, but in a research class in a doctoral program, they may really want mentorship from the instructor of that class and not seek so much interaction with others. So, again, asking these questions can help in designing the most motivating kinds of assignments for the courses that you teach.
It’s also true though that even if an instructor has a very good understanding of the particular student population, there will be diversity within each course. So it is important to design with that in mind. Create a mix of assignments that recognizes the diversity of motivational profiles of students in all courses and include a choice of assignments where possible.
The idea behind a developmental assignment is that it helps students gain mastery over time at increasing levels of depth. For example, at the beginning of a course, students might be provided with a difficult case scenario that they have very little ability to solve or to analyze, but that they will have an increasing ability to solve or analyze over time. They revisit that same scenario a couple of weeks after the start of the course and write a whole new response or a whole new analysis that includes the learning that they have already done up to that point. Depending on the assignment and the level of complexity, students might revisit that case scenario three times, or it could be every week during the course.
But the key is for students to watch their own learning and ability grow over time. Which of Ryan and Deci’s three motivational needs would that apply to? Let’s revisit those three needs. One is competence, one is relatedness with others, and one is autonomy or freedom.
This developmental type of assignment meets the need for competence, as students are watching their abilities grow over time if they are successful.
In illustrating their abilities, students are also able to meet their need for autonomy. There are also ways to add autonomy to an assignment like this. When students have a choice, for example, in how they’re going to present their increasing levels of skill, it can help with autonomy.
The developmental assignment can also increase the students’ sense of belonging and relatedness. If, for example, they share their final analysis with others in the course, or maybe their halfway through analysis, or they seek support from others in the course, that could also meet the need for relatedness.
These categories are not always clear-cut, and that’s not a bad thing. They’re really there to help instructors think about how to increase the level of intrinsic motivation in their assignments.
The key to the developmental assignment is that students are revisiting in greater depth or complexity over time. They’re revisiting the same content, to analyze it or discuss it and pull it apart, or maybe to add knowledge over time.
There are many ways to allow students to guide aspects of their learning, and very clearly meeting one of the needs that Ryan and Deci identify: the need for autonomy. One way to do so would be to invite students to create evaluation criteria for an assignment and offer their suggestions for criteria for a rubric. Students very much appreciate being given the chance to determine parts of how they’re going to be evaluated.
Giving students a choice about what sections or chapters to cover also provides autonomy, as does allowing them to choose the exam format—for example, multiple choice versus essay.
There is more than one way to help students become free. Freedom can mean giving students more choice of what to do, or how to do it inside of our classrooms. But freedom can also mean freeing up our perspectives, and one way to do so is to examine multiple perspectives on the same topic.
Recognizing a lack of motivation
Some students do not come into class feeling as if their voices are valuable to the learning community. This can be true for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it may be because the content is so new to them that they don’t really feel that they have a lot to add. In other cases, students may come in to a course with a language background that isn’t standard English or doesn’t match the academic English that’s being used in the course. I think that can make some students very silent in our class discussion forums, at least initially.
In cases like this, how might an instructor intervene?
One of the clearest indicators of a lack of motivation is a lack of participation. In the online classroom, quality of communication can be quite important. If an instructor only uses the word count feature of the LMS, a lack of motivation can be easily missed, as students can obviously write a lot and not say very much in a discussion forum.
An early indicator is a student missing in action or typing just short little posts that lack much thought. When that happens, it’s important to immediately contact the student by email or even phone. This can be a wakeup call, but the idea is definitely not to scare them. It’s to have a supportive conversation and to remind the student of the shared goals of the class.
Adapted from the Magna Online Seminar presentation, Designing Online Learning to Spark Intrinsic Motivation.Rebecca Zambrano is the director of online faculty development at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, where she has created, developed, and taught on-ground, blended, and online courses in the School of Education since 2004.