Motivating students

Recently, I was reading an opinion piece in the New York Times about two different kinds of motivation: internal and instrumental.  Internal motivation makes us do something because we enjoy it or because it fits into our belief system.  Instrumental motivation makes us do something because it is a means to an end. Two psychologists–one from Yale University and one from Swathmore College–said that internal motivation makes us more successful by most measurements.

I couldn’t help but think about how this applied to teaching.  In talking about classes with some of my colleagues, we have been consistently surprised at how little students might care about their grades, and how little a bad grade on a five question reading quiz (which would count for, at most, 0.5% of their course grade) motivates students to do the reading.  We were focused on the instrumental motivation of our students.  As these psychologists imply, we need to use a carrot, not a stick to motivate students.  We need to show them why our material matters and is interesting.

So how do we do that?  There are certainly no one-size-fits-all answers, and there are no right or wrong answers but here are some ideas that we can try:

  • Show our own enthusiasm.  Sometimes even teach units that are based on your specialty. I love Roman coins, so I talked about them throughout my Roman history course when they were relevant.
  • Show our own skill.  One of my students was impressed at the speed with which I can read Latin, and that wonder seems to have made him want to work harder.  Just be careful with this tactic that it does not become showing off and preventing your students from learning or practicing their own skills at Latin.
  • Give students a choice in assignments.  Let them have ownership over their own work.  One of my students remarked that he was really happy to be able to choose his own paper topic, and his friends were amazed (and jealous) that he got to.
  • Decrease the amount of stress from the class.  Communicate your expectations and ideas clearly, and give them an idea of what the exam will be like.  If the exam has an essay question, I like to give them a set of questions from which I will choose a few essays.  From that smaller group of essays, they get to choose one or two to write on the exam.  This helps guide their studying, lets them take more ownership of the exam, and lets them prepare the answers better ahead of time.
  • Teach about a variety of topics so that students might find something interesting.  Classics has a wide variety of topics–sports, modern film, food, war, clothing, politics, philosophy, history, religion, artifacts, sexuality (if age appropriate), theater, satire–that we can use to encourage students to find something they enjoy.
  • Teach topics that our students enjoy.  If you happen to know that students love mythology, read Latin passages about mythology or emphasize those parts of readings in translation more.
  • Choose a textbook that is educational and not too dull.  Latin sentences in textbooks do not have to be terribly dull just because the students have a limited vocabulary in Latin 101.  History textbooks do not need to be overcomplicated, and illustrations (especially maps) are incredibly helpful for most students who probably have no cultural context for what a strigil is.
  • If you have no choice about the textbook, help students understand their textbook better.  If the Latin book focuses on philosophy and moralizes in order to prepare students for “real Latin,” explain that is why the students will be reading about morality a lot during Latin 101.
  • Encourage the students to talk and be engaged.  Do not kill their enthusiasm.  Let them drive the discussion, and many times they will discuss topics that you wanted to discuss anyways.

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