Teaching Newsletter: The Motivation Cliff, 8/31/2017

August 31, 2017

Staying Motivated
First-year students are usually pretty easy to spot this time of year. They’re the ones roaming around in packs or looking lost. Given a little time, the freshmen will find their way around campus. But here’s a sobering thought: Many of them will never be more academically motivated than they are right now.

Two-thirds of fourth-year students surveyed for the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education saw their motivation stay the same or decline during college. It’s a finding that Josipa Roksa, co-author of Academically Adrift, has described as “much more disturbing” than the small gains in critical thinking detailed in that book. So why does motivation flag? And is there anything professors can do to turn it around?

One culprit is grades — or at the least the evaluative grades (think letters or percentages) used in most classes, as discussed in this recent article. Students who get low grades may become less engaged; those who get high grades may focus on keeping them up rather than on learning. One way to boost motivation, then, is to provide descriptive feedback instead.

There’s more to motivating students than how you grade, of course. Students’ motivation is closely tied to their sense of a course’s intrinsic worth, research has found. That’s something professors can cultivate by giving students autonomy, for instance by letting them tailor assignments to their interests. Motivating students isn’t just a warm, fuzzy thing to do: Gains in motivation predict retention. And whatever else happens to this year’s freshmen, colleges definitely want them back as next year’s sophomores.

How have you helped students forge a deeper connection to your course? Are there strategies you’ve used to help students maintain — or even increase — their motivation? Send an example to beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and I may include it in a future Teaching newsletter.

Education and Polarization

Education is often touted as an effective way to counteract our increasingly polarized climate. But it might not always help, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who studied the interaction between education, political and religious identity, and attitudes about polarizing issues.

For certain topics, people who had taken more general-education courses and had more-extensive science knowledge held more-polarized attitudes. Specifically, when these highly educated people were asked about stem-cell research, human evolution, and the Big-Bang theory, their religious or political identity came into play, and their views became increasingly polarized. When they were asked about climate change, their political identities were activated, which also increased polarization. In contrast, nanotechnology and genetically modified food didn't trigger the same kinds of polarization.

When it comes to controversial issues, the authors wrote, "the gap between beliefs among political conservatives and liberals widens as education increases."

These findings bring to mind the work of Dan M. Kahan, of Yale, about whom our former colleague Paul Voosen wrote a few years ago. Mr. Kahan’s theory is that tribal biases, or what he calls "cultural cognition," often govern how we perceive scientific knowledge.

Another Use for the Syllabus
A few weeks ago, we asked you to share ways that you use your syllabus as a teaching tool. Catheryn J. Weitman, dean of University College at Texas A&M International University, uses hers to model how students can complete an assignment that she often gives in her organizational-leadership course.

In this assignment, students select and submit a quote that, in some way, relates to each chapter they must read. The assignment allows her to see who understands the reading and helps her start the discussion of each chapter.

In her syllabus, she models how the assignment might be completed, by including quotes that relate to various parts of that document. For example, in the part of the syllabus that’s about deadlines, she quotes the writer Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make when they fly by.”

— Beckie and Dan

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