Thursday, July 9, 2009


Darth Will Find Ways to Motivate Them

The question has come up in my class on building online classes as to what makes for a motivated student – particularly because as we study and ponder what should go into a successful online course, the recommendation we run into most often is that “this activity/thingy is best for motivated students.”

So what makes a student motivated? I’m tempted to say it’s not as complicated as this list makes it out to be – but I think the author of this piece gets it right with the first bullet point:

Motivated students “have a clear understanding of the relevance and purpose of the study.”

One of the biggest questions we’ve been asked to answer in this class is, for the student, “What’s in it for me?” We have a change through our pedagogy, lessons, activities and assessments to help students answer that question in a positive manner throughout the course. Answering that question positively and constantly is more important than any technology, trick, variation of assessment and lesson or anything else for that matter -- though all of these can help. If students fail to see what a game or technological approach to learning will do for them, they're not worth having.

Why throughout the course? Because even for motivated students, the level of motivation changes over time. Motivation may also shift entirely out of the realm of the specific learning environment, making a student who appeared motivated in the past suddenly appear unmotivated.

What do motivated students need to remain motivated to the task at hand?

An instructor willing to facilitate, but also willing to step in and crack the whip like an old-fashioned teacher. Even among motivated students, there comes a time when the instructor has to lay down the law. “You’re behind schedule.” “You’re not understanding this concept.” “Do I have a class of lazybones?”

Specific feedback. The admonitions thrown out by the whip-wielding instructor are only the beginning. Instructors should start with general announcements, but then get down to specifics, especially specifics with individual students.

Praise. Yes, the ol’ carrot and stick. But, again, specific. Things like “That’s great!” Or “You’re doing well!” is meaningless, and, worse, does nothing to reinforce application or remind the learner of potential application of what is being learned. This is especially important as motivated students take on new, unfamiliar tasks. They may concentrate so much on completing the new task that they neglect to apply past learnings in ways that will make the new task more applicable to what they already know.

I have seen firsthand what happens when motivated individuals, through indistinct feedback and praise, lose their motivation. It’s like flipping a switch that shuts the motivation off completely. Turning that switch back on can be difficult.

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