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Motivating Your Students

When you teach, do your students ever sit there with blank expressions on their faces? Or worse — do you ever find yourself staring back — with a blank expression on your face? How do we get ourselves — and our students — to be motivated to come to class and to want to learn?

We all know that motivated students make a classroom come alive with discussion and enthusiasm. When students come in with a positive attitude and a desire to learn, it paves the way for instructors to display their passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter. When things are going well, the two groups — students and instructors — can feed off each other. When things aren't going well, the class can go downhill at an alarming rate.

Dr. Robert Louis (Pete) Bill, the Director of the Veterinary Technology Program at Purdue University, has conducted numerous workshops on the topic of motivating students. The following are his ideas on the subject which are taken from John Keller's ARCS Model of Motivational Design (1987).

Keller's model consists of four aspects of teaching — attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction.

One way to gain your students' attention is to use visuals. Students' attention span is about 3 to 5 minutes long, so what's happening in front of the class needs to change at least that often. PowerPoint can be an effective visual medium — if it's used correctly. Make sure that your PowerPoint supplements your lecture instead of you supplementing the PowerPoint. You should be the center of attention. Other ways to get your students' attention are to change your inflection, move around the room and then pause, change your facial expression and use gestures. Ask challenging questions to pique their interest. Introduce some cognitive dissonance in your lesson to appeal to their curiosity.

Making the topic relevant is Keller's second suggestion for increasing motivation in the classroom. Introduce problems that are related to the students' goals (personal, professional and/or academic). For this technique to be effective, you must really know your students, their culture and what their goals are. Try to motivate your students to set their goals even higher. Shift the relevance of the class for them from "passing academics" to "passing life."

Confidence is Keller's third method of increasing motivation. When students procrastinate about reading the assignment or doing their homework it slows down the class. Students may procrastinate because they feel they're not capable of learning the material or doing the assignment. Give occasional pep talks and tell them why things are required in the course. Provide small successes at the beginning of the course and then slowly increase the difficulty of the assignments. Set clear objectives. What's in your course should not be a mystery. Also, allow students opportunities to teach each other. Teaching others is an extremely effective way for them to learn the material.

Satisfaction is Keller's fourth suggestion for increasing student motivation. Feelings play a large part in learning. When students feel good about what they're doing, it's gratifying for them intrinsically and makes them work even harder. Give your students a chance to contribute their ideas to the course structure and, in that way, "buy in" to what's going on. Give them opportunities to feel a sense of accomplishment from their efforts.

According to Dr. Bill, there are 4 landmines that can undermine student motivation: (1) not giving feedback, (2) not giving feedback in a timely manner, (3) giving only negative feedback and (4) giving exams that don't match the course objectives.

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Words of Wisdom

  • Be excited about your class! You can't expect your students to be excited about the course if you're not. On the first day of class, tell them directly that you're excited about being there and are looking forward to the semester.
  • Occasionally, use surprises in your class. Do something out of the ordinary before class begins, like playing music or putting a puzzle on the board. Students like seeing novel things in the classroom (as long as they're tied into the lesson.)
  • For a change of pace, one day each semester, give out Hershey kisses to students who answer questions.
  • Make up games. Set up reviews for for quizzes and exams as games, like Jeopardy or Family Feud. Students enjoy friendly competition — especially if there's a prize involved.
  • Learn your students' names. Calling on students by name makes a strong personal connection with them and will make them feel like they're noticed and that their attendance means something.
  • Be approachable. Watch your tone when you answer students' questions and make sure you don't sound defensive or brusque, even if it's a question you've heard a dozen times before. Make the classroom a safe place for students to ask and answer questions.
  • Give positive feedback when it's appropriate and possible. Send emails to students who have done well on a quiz or an assignment and encourage them to keep up the good work. Write words of praise on their written assignments along with your constructive feedback.
  • Have clear course objectives and explain why you're making the assignments you're making.
  • Make your grading as fair as possible. There's nothing more de-motivating for a student than feeling he/she has received an unfair grade.