A Synopsis of “How Learning Works” (Part 3 of 7): Students’ Motivation Determines, Directs, and Sustains What They Do to Learn


by Cory Budischak
Energy Management Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

This is the third post in a series of seven focused on the book How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. You can find my previous synopses here. Today, I’ll take a look at the third principle proposed in the book: Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. As in previous posts, I’ll start by summarizing the authors’ analysis of this principle based on three questions. After that, I’ll address a fourth question of my own: How do I plan to incorporate this into my own instruction?

1. What are examples of learning issues that this principle can address?

These are the two examples from the book:

“This past semester, I finally got to teach a course that relates directly to my area of interest. I put in a lot of time and energy this summer preparing materials and was really excited going into the semester. I used a number of seminal readings in Continental Philosophy and assigned a research project based on primary documents from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I thought that students would be excited by the topic and would appreciate reading some of the classic works. But it did not turn out the way I had hoped, and I was really disappointed by their work. With the exception of the two philosophy majors and the one student who “needed an A to get into graduate school,” they were not at all interested in the readings and hardly participated in the discussions. In addition, they were not particularly inspired or creative in choosing research topics. Overall, they made little progress across the semester. I guess when it comes right down to it, most students do not much care about philosophy.”

“My colleague who usually teaches Thermodynamics was on leave for the semester, and I was assigned to take his place. I knew it would not be easy to teach this course: it has a reputation for being really hard, and engineering students only take it because it is required for the major. On top of that, my colleague had warned me that many students stop coming to lectures early on in the semester, and those who come to class often do not come prepared. It seemed clear that I needed a way to motivate students to work hard and keep up with the material. I recalled that when I was a student, any suggestion by the professor that I might not be up to the challenge really got me fired up and eager to prove him wrong. So I told my students on the first day of class, “This is a very difficult course. You will need to work harder than you have ever worked in a course and still a third of you will not pass.” I expected that if my students heard that, they would dig in and work harder to measure up. But to my surprise, they slacked off even more than in previous semesters: they often did not come to class, they made lackluster efforts at the homework, and their test performance was the worst it had been for many semesters. And this was after I gave them fair warning! This class had the worst attitude I have ever seen and the students seemed to be consumed by an overall sense of lethargy and apathy. I am beginning to think that today’s students are just plain lazy.”

2. What does research say about this principle?

The research on the principle can be summed up by figure 3.2 from the book which is reproduced below. In order for students to be motivated these three things must be in place: high student efficacy (in other words, the student expects he or she can do well in the course), a supportive environment, and the student finding value in the course. In absence of any one of these factors, a student will be unmotivated as you can see in the figure.

Figure 3.2

3. How can instructors teach with this principle in mind?

The book breaks up the recommendations into three sections, so I will as well. All the suggestions are headings from the book.

Strategies to Establish Value

  • Connect the material to students’ interests
  • Provide authentic, real-world tasks
  • Show relevance to students’ current academic lives
  • Demonstrate the relevance of higher-level skills to students’ future professional lives
  • Identify and reward what you value
  • Show your own passion for the discipline

Strategies That Help Students Build Positive Expectancies

  • Ensure alignment of objectives, assessments, and instructional strategies
  • Identify an appropriate level of challenge
  • Create assignments that provide the appropriate level of challenge
  • Provide early success opportunities
  • Articulate your expectations
  • Provide rubrics
  • Provide targeted feedback
  • Be fair
  • Educate students about the ways we explain success and failure
  • Describe effective study strategies

Strategies That Address Value and Expectancies

  • Provide flexibility and control
  • Give students an opportunity to reflect

4. How do I plan to incorporate this into my instruction?

Establishing Value
I teach mostly classes inside the Energy Technologies department which makes it much easier to show the students how my courses have value to their academic and career paths. The topic of energy lends itself quite well to providing them with real world tasks such as performing an energy audit on their home.

Establishing Positive Expectancies
Because I have taught many new courses in the past few years, finding the appropriate level of challenge has been quite difficult. I developed a strategy so I could adjust the level of difficulty of my assignments. Whenever I give a large assignment, I make sure to leave the end of class for the students to start the assignment. I also give them more time before the assignment is due to work on it in class. This way, I can see the students’ progress and adjust the assignment accordingly by giving hints or even going over tough concepts again in lecture. I hope to continue this in the future.

One thing I do not do is go over study strategies and I think this is something I really would like to incorporate in my classroom in the future. I would also like to make sure I give my students an opportunity to reflect on assignments with exam wrappers or other forms of reflection.

What about you? How do you motivate students in your classroom now and did you learn anything new to help with motivation in the future? Let me know by commenting on this post below.

Join me next time when I examine principle #4: To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.

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