Each Monday afternoon in March, I went over to the gorgeous Elderly Services building in Middlebury, took the elevator up to the atrium, and met with eight retired people for my course in the ESI College program.  This was really fun, in large part because the participants had the purest of motives:  they simply wanted to learn.  When I introduced an idea, no one was thinking about how much class participation counts in a final grade, or whether this exact content would be useful in a future career.  It didn’t hurt to have a collection of thoughtful and witty men and women who asked a lot of good questions.

Naturally this got me thinking about the question of motivation in more formal educational settings.  I often ask my students (as does the course response form they fill out at the end of the semester) why they signed up for my class, but I suspect that I don’t always get the complete answer. “I needed it for my major” could be short for “I needed it for my economics major and I’m an economics major because my parents think that’s the best way for me to get a job that will pay back my student loans,” or it may mean “I’m a math major and math has always been my favorite.”

If I were more brave, perhaps I’d ask, once in a while, what motivates you today?  Did you come to class because attendance is part of the grade, or because you worry you just might miss something, or because the last class was so intellectually stimulating?  When you raise your hand, are you concerned about what your classmates might think if you look too smart or too stupid or too engaged?  When someone else is speaking, is your mind on your English paper or your next basketball game or your parent with cancer?

But then I’d have to figure out how I, as the instructor, should respond.  One approach would be to assume that none of that is my concern;  I’ll teach to those who are prepared and interested, and they’ll probably end up with the A’s.  Another would be to load up the course with extrinsic motivators in an attempt to drown out the distractions and frighten or cajole students into paying attention.  The thing is, I can’t let go of my dream of a room full of students who are there because they love learning math.

The book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (S. Ambrose, M. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M. Lovett, and M. Norman, John Wiley & Sons, 2010) has an entire chapter called “What  Factors Motivate Students to Learn?”  The bad news for my dream is that “students’ goals for themselves may differ from our goals for them” (p. 71).  But there’s hope here; different goals don’t have to be in conflict, according to the authors.  In addition, it is indeed a bad idea to try to strike fear into students’ hearts; motivation is fed not just by the value students attribute to learning, but also their “expectancies” — their expectations that they can and will succeed.  There’s a diagram in the book that’s meant to show that value and expectancy interact to affect motivation.

We mathematicians are trained skeptics, as I must have written at least twice here before.  Our response to social science research is often either “how do you know that?” or “isn’t that obvious?”  So far, though, I’m finding this book useful.  It affirms some things I thought I knew; for example,

…most research suggests that students who hold learning goals, as compared to those who hold performance goals…, are more likely to use study strategies that result in deeper understanding, to seek help when needed, to persist when faced with difficulty, and to seek out and feel comfortable with challenging tasks. (p. 72)

The book also challenges me to recognize the complexities in the art of teaching, and the need to be ever mindful of them rather than expecting that learning will just happen.  I certainly don’t want my students to learn by rote, so I shouldn’t teach mechanically either. Now on to the other six principles.


About Priscilla Bremser

Professor of Mathematics Middlebury College
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