Happy Monday, ONL-ers!

Since the last time I posted, the conservation biology course I teach has become a lot more intense. We’re past the introductory lectures now and on to the big project work for the semester – analysing genetic data from actual butterflies and using them to make mock conservation recommendations. Although my course is not taught online this year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of the theory we’ve been introduced to in ONL is applicable to the group work I’m moderating. Even the offhand discussions I’ve had with my PBL group on how best to assign students to groups has been useful!

Today, I want to focus more on nurturing motivation to learn in university students. Since the pandemic hit, I have been noticing a major dip in students’ ability to engage with the lectures, workshops, and labs that I lead. (And I’m not the only one! See 1). I don’t fault them for it – I’m burnt out too – but I would like to help my students not freeze up or become despondent when faced with some of the more challenging material in the curriculum.

I really liked some of the strategies for maintaining motivation that were detailed in Michael Galbraith’s 2004 text on adult learning methods (2), especially the coverage of Wlodkowski’s framework for culturally responsive teaching (first introduced in (3)). Under this framework, four motivational conditions are presented, along with a timeline for when they should be incorporated into lesson plans. In order, these conditions are establishing inclusion, developing attitude, enhancing meaning, and engendering competence.

In my experience, “developing attitude” is where I have the most trouble as a lecturer, as most of my students are field biologists that start my class with a very negative view of computers and mathematics. I work really hard at establishing inclusion at the start of group projects – mainly through icebreakers, smaller coding activities, and group-specific office hours. I also think the material I assign enhances meaning and engenders competence by design; by the end of their projects in my class, students have developed basic coding skills, used them to learn something new about threatened species, and have had heated debates about their findings.

How, then, do I help students not feel like spending a day struggling at the computer is worse than having their teeth pulled? As much as I try to spark interest by showing how genomic analyses are useful for conservation, or by talking about potential careers in bioinformatics, students who plan to be field biologists are just not finding any of the “personal relevance” needed for motivation. If, as Galbraith wrote, “interest and choice are soul mates,” I’m starting to feel single-handedly responsible for breaking up a happy couple.

For the more seasoned educators out there, what are your tips and tricks for teaching topics that students tend to hate, but really need to learn? Please let me know in the comments below because I’m feeling really stuck these days.


Works cited:

  1. Emma R. Wester, Lisa L. Walsh, Sandra Arango-Caro, & Kristine L. Callis-Duehl. (2021). Student Engagement Declines in STEM Undergraduates during COVID-19–Driven Remote Learning. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 22(1). https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v22i1.2385
  2. Galbraith, Michael W. (2004). Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction (3rd ed.) Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.
  3. Wlodkowski, R.J. (1999) Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults. (Revised ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Encouraging motivation in unmotivating times – I need help!