Motivating Students

Before the semester begins, students look over course syllabi like long-distance runners do tracks. The words “course” and “curriculum,” in fact, both derive from the Latin cursus, “a running race or course,” and the weeks of the term, like the legs of a race, will test the endurance of students in various ways. The comparison of academic and athletic performance is especially apt because, at their limits, the two can be difficult to distinguish. Course enrollees putting in long hours in the library need to have a well-cultivated capacity for sitzfleisch, the sheer physical ability to sit still and stay working. The mental trials of athletes are, likewise, taxing. As rowers of the 2000m will attest, the psychological challenge of that race comes in the third quarter: after the halfway mark, the initial burst of energy is gone, but the end is not near enough for adrenaline to carry the fatiguing body beyond the limits which are beginning to weigh it down. In such moments, the coxswain’s question is one familiar to every college teacher: how does one provide motivation in the middle of a course?

Last month, graduate students and faulty gathered at the Bok Center for a workshop entitled “How to Motivated Students” lead by Billy French, who is both the Department Teaching Fellow for East Asian Languages and Civilization as well as a Pedagogy Fellow for the Program in General Education. In a presentation that surveyed a wide range of educational research on the topic of motivation, French distilled, for his colleagues, the essential points. The first important finding he shared with the group was a distinction, frequently made in the literature, between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The former refers to that drive to do well which is generated by external rewards, pressures, or other outcomes, whereas the latter identifies motivation that is internally-generated by the activity itself. While research has confirmed an intuitive conclusion about these two kinds of motivation—that students spurred by intrinsic motivation tend to enjoy better results—, extrinsic motivation is the more common of the two. A quick exercise which French conducted in the workshop illustrated the point rather vividly: before the distinction between these two types of motivation was drawn, attendees were asked to volunteer examples of academic achievement, writing them on sticky notes; as we then collectively sorted through these examples on a white board, the group of notes identifying extrinsically motivated tasks grew rapidly, while only a small cluster of colored squares represented activities pursued for their own sakes.

This asymmetry, however, was quite instructive—especially in a room full of scholars and teachers who take distinct pleasure in their work. For although the distinction may be useful as a heuristic for parsing the motives of large populations of students, a firm separation of the two categories is ultimately difficult to maintain. The most mercenary student taking a course for the most instrumental reasons must, nevertheless, develop a virtual version of intrinsic interest in order to succeed. So too, the most enthusiastic student, reveling in the thrill of a favorite topic, must, paradoxically, make an effort to overcome that love in order to communicate clearly to other minds the insights that affect affords. Such a student must needs always imagine an audience who, while willing to be persuaded, remains unmoved by the same inherent interest.

The porous line distinguishing these categories shows that the difference between them is less a binary switch than a spectrum: to varying degrees, both kinds of motivation are always informing the activities of students. The blending of this firm distinction, moreover, helps us to conceive of motivation’s two poles in a new ways. Because extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are, in some sense, co-constitutive, they cannot be made tantamount to privation and plenitude; in other words, students who come to a topic with prior interests (or pure curiosity) bring motivations that are different from—but not necessarily superior to—the motivations of students encountering material for the first time with instrumental purposes in mind.

Nor is the valorization of intrinsic motivation without its risks. For one thing, it makes the necessary distinction between enthusiasm and academic performance harder to distinguish. Loving Shakespeare does not lead naturally to writing successfully about his plays; nor is such an affective response the indispensible prerequisite for doing so. In fact, though the value of enthusiasm cannot be gainsaid, the expectation that students ought to love every course they take—or that teachers, similarly, should love every course they teach—is a heavy obligation; and removing this injunction does not condemn students or instructors to careers of cold duty or mere drudgery. Instead, faculty who teach service courses and students who fulfill the criteria of their curriculums use the extrinsic motivation that these requirements provide as a means of expanding their pedagogical range or their intellectual spheres. Moreover, in doing so, they instantiate that disinterestedness which has traditionally been a hallmark of academic discourse: that ability to project oneself into new assignments or foreign scholarship unsupported by any intrinsic motivation. This, in turn, leads to an obvious point about intellectual growth: namely, that affinity follows facility. As developing skills cause the anxiety produced by a strange or difficulty task to recede, the immersive experience of total engagement becomes possible. Indeed, it makes available that exquisitely satisfying feeling of complete participation in an engrossing, enriching, and challenging task which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi simply calls “flow,” the state in which time seems to stand still as we are held, by our work, in an enduring moment of vital involvement.

This returns us to the comparison with athletes, whose training requires a constant shuttling between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, and whose physical abilities create the preconditions for an experience analogous to psychological flow. At first, regimes of physical exercise can only be valued for the effects that they will produce. Eventually, however, as the effects of regular exercise begin to manifest themselves, the body can gradually be pushed beyond its former limits, and once-punishing routines of extreme exertion start to feel, surprisingly, good. Thus does the scaffolding of merely extrinsic motivation fall away, and euphoric moments like “runner’s high” become possible. In difficult courses of study, a similar relay between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations passes as students develop their new strengths. As the perimeter of a student’s intellectual range expands, recondite topics, abstruse concepts and incompressible calculations, which were once forbidding, each gradually yield the pleasures of apprehended complexity.                                      

How, then, might academic discussions of motivation be expanded to account for this interplay between the extrinsic and the intrinsic? One of the textbooks which French cited approvingly in his presentation, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, expands this familiar dyad into a triad by identifying three different forms of value which feed into motivation—namely: intrinsic, instrumental, and attainment value. While the first two terms map onto a by now familiar distinction, the addition of attainment value improves upon this original pair by identifying a motivation which is, in some sense, poised between this opposition by identifying a value which inheres in the sheer completion of a given task. As illustrations of actions that are motivated by this value, the authors offer, as examples “a student…solving complex mathematical theorems…simply to demonstrate her ability to solve them,” in addition to those committed amateurs who “spend hours playing video games in order to reach higher levels of mastery.” This passing reference to video games not only touches on such trends as the “gamification” of learning, but it also avers to the deep satisfaction which comes from even watching virtuoso performances of video games played well, a fact which the increasingly-popular broadcasters of what are now known as electronic sports can attest.

By reframing the question of mid-semester motivation within the fuller, tripartite picture that the hybrid notion of attainment value provides, teachers gain a better sense of the different ways that their students can relate to their course material. Some will be intrinsically motivated, valuing class activities in the present continuous; they will enjoy doing the work. Others will value these same activities, the course itself, and perhaps even their undergraduate degrees mainly for what they enable; they do the work in order to do different things. Others, finally, will value a class for its eventual existence in the perfect aspect; the course work will matter most for having been done. If this last description faintly echo the flippant definition of a classic—a book one enjoys having read more than reading—, it does so for good reason, as it point towards the formative strain that a true education entails, as well as the unquantifiable (because unpredictable) gifts which it bestows. One of the fifteen definitions of “the classics” that Italo Calvino offers in a charming essay on the topic reads: “The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.” Thus are the motivations that carry students through their courses of study, to some extent, fungible because they do not delimit the benefits of education that cannot be defined in advance—either by teachers or by students themselves.

Student motivation, then, becomes a question, not of priority but plurality. Teachers need not preoccupy themselves about which form to foster for, as Cervantes says, it takes all kinds. In any given course, the range of motivations will be as various as the students themselves—a fact which makes the role of a teacher one of identifying, welcoming, and encouraging the various kinds of motivation which one finds in a classroom. This need to recognize and acknowledge motivation’s inherent plurality reflects the most important piece of advice which French offered to his colleagues, a reminder that is also the pithiest summary of the research he surveyed: “The key to motivating students lies in good teaching practices—there is no magic bullet!”

This is a guest post from Bok Blog contributor Stephen Tardif