Value, expectancies, and environment. These are the three most important factors influencing student motivation according to the 2010 book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

Preparing his course syllabi, readings, and assignments for the upcoming semester with these three factors in mind, University of Iowa instructor David Gooblar asks a single question to determine their appropriateness for his class: Will students want to do this?

If students want to pass a class they are going to show up and do the coursework whether they like it or not. However, if their heart is not in it, years of research indicates their performance and retention levels will be lower in comparison to their more intrinsically motivated peers (Bain, 2004). When students find the course material valuable and are comfortable engaging in class discussion, they are more likely to perform better and achieve their goals.

Therefore, during the first week of class, Gooblar has his students write answers to the following questions to ensure his course goals align with those of his students:

  1. What do you want to achieve in this course?
  2. Why are you taking this course?
  3. What do you want to improve by taking this course?

The low-stakes exercise requires students to carefully reflect upon and articulate their motivations and goals for the course, providing them with a better chance of academic and personal success (Schippers, Scheepers, & Peterson, 2015). Meanwhile, instructors receive valuable information they may use to pivot their course structure to best serve their students early on.

The right kind of motivation may make all the difference for an entire class or an individual student. Sometimes all it takes is asking students to share their goals to foster a positive environment with shared values and expectations.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.