Sustaining Student Engagement and Motivation

Ish Stabosz - marathon

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

If you’re anything like me, your motivation comes in waves.

At the start of a project, you’re all gung ho to dive in and get it done.

Then you get deep in it and realize just how draining all the fine details are. You get stuck in the weeds, so to speak, and your engagement with the project drops.

Maybe you start finding creative ways to procrastinate: You realize how messy your desk has gotten. You decide that stack of papers would be really fun to grade. You notice every 10 minutes that your coffee cup has gone empty.

An example that most of us can relate to is planning a course. A few weeks before the semester begins, I start planning all the amazing ways I’m going to change my course based on the past semester. I tweak the assignment instructions to make them more problem-based, I modify my Zombie Survival game to make it more visually appealing, and I update my rubrics to better reflect the competencies that students need to reflect.

But then I get to the tedious stuff: Updating every single date on the course schedule, creating grade center columns, uploading the newest versions of departmental policy documents. These tasks matter, of course, but they certainly aren’t fun.

Now’s the part when you’re expecting me to solve all your self-motivation problems

Sorry.

I still haven’t figured out how to make cross-referencing syllabi with grade center columns fun.

However, reflecting on how my motivation behaves like a sine wave prompted me to think about my students. I expect them to remain engaged in writing–a task that a lot of them hate–for a full sixteen weeks.

That’s a tall order. But I want to use this post to share a few of the methods that I’ve found to motivate students at the beginning of the course and sustain that engagement throughout the semester.

Week 1: Why _______ Matters

Unless you’re teaching an upper-level course, your students probably enter your class with little intrinsic motivation regarding your subject matter. I know, it’s a hard pill to swallow, but some students really don’t go to bed at night pondering the 101 uses of the quadratic equation or how the English language developed a silent “gh”.

That’s why I think the first week of every course should be focused on Why _____ matters (fill in the blank with your discipline).

In my class, for example, the students spend the first week writing a one page essay on why writing matters. To jump start their thinking, I usually play them a silly video (like this), and I show them how good writing skills have changed my life–the doors they’ve opened up for me, professionally and otherwise.

Most importantly, we talk about how writing skills will change their lives: things like why employers would pick someone with demonstrated communication skills over another applicant who demonstrated more job-specific skills (hint: job skills can be learned on the job). Not to mention how the concept of using showing details in descriptive writing can also be applied to resumes and interviews.

And to be clear, I’m being 100% honest with my students when I sell them this stuff. It’s not snake oil. The concept “Show, don’t tell”, which every writing textbook stresses, has MADE MY LIFE BETTER. Seriously.

When I’m blogging, when I’m lesson planning, when I’m trying to get my way in a committee meeting, when I’m talking with my wife, when I’m teaching my kids how to cook, when I’m GMing at the D&D table, when I’m writing an email to a potential client to land a freelancing job–when I’m doing all of those things and more, I always apply the most basic principle of good writing: show, don’t tell.

So, if you haven’t thought about it in a while, take a stroll around campus and think of all the ways that your discipline has changed your life. Then consider spending some time in the first week of every semester showing students how it can change theirs too.

You’ll be surprised how receptive they are.

Weeks 2 – 5: Unlocking Potential

In week 1, I promised my students that their lives will be better if they become good writers. In the weeks that immediately follow, I have to deliver on that promise.

Once you’ve captured their attention at the start of the semester, your students are primed to learn a few high impact skills. They are ready to be empowered. These early weeks are your chance to help students unlock the true potential of your discipline.

This is the time, for example, when I teach my students how to apply the concept “show, don’t tell”. They don’t become masters of it in just a few weeks, of course, but they do learn how to start using it in a few situations. They get to see themselves progress as they practice transforming empty telling details like “The class was boring” into vivid, showing details like this:

The instructor’s voice droned on and on like the never-ending decimals of Pi, each word more meaningless than the one before it. Most of my peers had already surrendered. Heads lay lifeless on desks, brain dead zombies doomed to an unhappy stage between life and death. Those who still grasped at some form of consciousness found their own way to escape the “lesson” we were forced to endure. Some gazed longingly at their phones, wishing for the freedom that friends were boasting about on Facebook. Some, under the guise of taking notes, wove intricate mazes of endless rectangles in their notebooks in a vain attempt to discover some form of intellectual stimulation. Still others escaped into the vast recesses of their own minds, evidenced by vacant stares at the lifeless walls of this prison, occasionally accompanied by a sort of maniacal giggle. And the poor clock. The minute hand crawled inch by inch, a hopeless wanderer lost in this desert of boredom. Each ticking step around that circle of doom was another reminder of how much longer this unbearable torture must persist.

Your main jobs in these early weeks is to help students prove to themselves that they can get better than they already are. Think of the most mind blowing concept that your discipline has to offer and let students experience it.

Don’t just teach it to them, have them do it.

If they can see their growth–if they can feel themselves becoming a writer, a mathematician, a historian, a scientist, a programmer, a politician–then they’ll really start to understand why _____ matters.

Weeks 6 – 13: The Marathon

This is the most trying time of the semester–for me and my students.

The honeymoon is over. The buzz of energy is dimming. The initial excitement about the new opportunities afforded by a new semester are replaced with a sudden realization that it’s gonna take a lot of hard work over a long span of time.

At this point, students will still enjoy learning. Human beings will always enjoy learning, as evidenced by the fact that Dan Pink listed mastery as one of the 3 key factors of motivation. The challenge for instructors lies in getting students motivated to take the first steps to do the work that will lead to the learning. Especially during the mid-semester slump.

So this is the point when I start taking more active steps to make class fun. For example, in ENG 102, week 6 is just about the time that we start working on APA citation (the MOST boring skill known to mankind, btw). So, instead of a lecture, or a tutorial video, or guided practice, I get students to learn the most common misconceptions and mistakes of citation with games like this and this. (You can find even more resources for using games in the classroom at this website that I put together: http://mrishworkshop.weebly.com/game-based-learning.html)

Active and collaborative learning is always an important part of any course, but if you had to pick one part of the semester to focus on it especially, it would be during these marathon weeks. That’s why this is the point in the semester that I begin having students complete their team teach assignments–10 to 15 minute lessons that they give as a team on the weekly readings.

This is a multipurpose assignment: it reinforces key learning material, gives students easy practice in front of an audience to prepare them for their final presentation, and–most relevant to the subject of motivation–gets students working together.

If you’re looking for new ways to incorporate active and collaborative learning into your own classes, check out these handy resources:

A continuum of active learning strategies

Active Learning for the College Classroom

Classroom Activities for Active Learning

Weeks 14 – 16: The Home Stretch

You: sheesh, could you think of a more predictable heading?

Me: No, sorry. I tried really hard, but that was as predictable as I could get.

Get it? That was a joke to keep you engaged and motivated to finish reading my article.

During the end of the semester, at least in my classes, students are faced with a different sort of motivation issue. This is the point when our main focus is finishing up their research projects. There is plenty left for students to do, but not particularly much left for them to learn. It’s all about applying the skills they’ve already learned.

At this point in the schedule, more than at any other, I find myself playing the role of cheerleader for my students. A seven page research paper is a tough mountain to scale, and this is the point when students often find themselves about half way up the mountain and completely out of rope:

They’ve used all of their sources and have no idea how to fill up more space.

They suddenly realize that their thesis has no tension at all.

They discover that all of their sources basically say the same thing.

For freshman college students who are potentially writing the largest composition of their lives, setbacks like these can be the tipping point that leads them to finally give up.

So, during the home stretch, I show my students that they can do it.

I share the story of my wife scrapping a 15 page paper for her senior seminar course and starting over from scratch–the night before it was due.

I ask students to complete an anonymous questionnaire to ask about the assignment without the stigma of looking uninformed.

I give them more time during class to work on their papers so that I can be there, just in time, to give them the advice or encouragement they need.

What About You?

Those are some of the ways that I try to keep my students engaged and motivated throughout the entire semester, but I’d love to hear yours too.

Share your own tips and tricks in the comments.

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