Encouraging motivation in unmotivating times – I need help!

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

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  1. Sorry this was a rough one for you, but just remember sometimes you can only go so far in encouraging people but making something an interest and a choice for others is a super power we cannot possess.

    As long as you keep trying by using the knowledge you possessed from being in the students shoes I am certain that this is just one bad day and I am sure many of your students appreciate your take on things.

  2. I really like this post that was of a more open and help-seeking nature than any other I read. What a great way to use your blog posts! I completely resonate with your struggle. I teach physics students and even them are sometimes reluctant to math and computers, believe it or not… It is my impression that a lot of it has to do with self-confidence. We are naturally reluctant to attempt something we do not think we will master. What I have found hepful in this situation is to reveal that I myself have struggled at points. Whenever I say “when I was learning this, I really struggled” I can literally see the faces of the students lighten up. I think that by saying “look, I’ve been exactly where you are now and felt the same way, but I made it” you can instill some hope and self-confidence. I think the key here is to really validate their feelings and convince them you were at that same place, otherise they will likely brush you off as “a genius” with whom they can’t relate. I therefore typically give them an example, like “when I got to this equation I thought like this…” and hopefully they will recognize that exact thought. I also found that simply saying “I did not receive a very high grade on this myself” actully helps a lot…because I somehow managed to become a teacher anyway 😛

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