Students have varying motivations for taking a course
The range of motivators that influence our students to take a course are nearly as numerous as the number of students who enroll. For some, enrollment reflects an intrinsic interest in the topic. For others, it is a require course. For still others it is the only class option that fits their schedule. Some think it will be an easy A. And for some students, they enroll because other friends are also taking the course and it offers an opportunity to see each other and interact. The factors motivating our students have a powerful influence on the type, intensity and quality of work they demonstrate in our courses. Understanding these factors can help us better support our students’ learning.
Remember, not all students have the same interest and motivation as you. Indeed, you probably represent the extreme in terms of interest and motivation in your field. Knowing why students enroll in your course can help you choose examples, readings, demonstrations and applications that cover the range of motivators influencing your students. Assessing not only prior knowledge but students attitudes about your topic and their motivation for being in your class, can provide valuable information.
If students see how concepts and ideas apply in their own domains, they are more likely to realize the relevance of the material. Relevance is a key determinant of motivation.
Choice allows students to direct their attention and focus their efforts toward specific areas of interest. You can introduce choice at the individual- or the class-level provided that it supports the learning objectives of your course. For instance, you can allow students to choose topics for papers or projects. Alternatively, some instructors leave some days in the syllabus as TBA (to be announced) and allow students to choose the topic(s) for discussion.
If appropriate, give students an opportunity to differentially weigh various aspects of the course. For instance, certain students may decide to weigh class participation more heavily than others. Alternatively, others may weigh exam scores more heavily that homework assignments. This choice allows students to concentrate their efforts in aspects of the course that they find most interesting. While this strategy can and has indeed been used successfully on campus, several factors determine its success. The variation in weight is usually restricted (e.g., participation might count from 5% to 15% of the total grade). This is because all the possible individualized schemes must be able to assess the common learning objectives for the course. Also, students should identify their weighting distribution at the beginning of the semester and not post-hoc. Finally, the students must have adequate intellectual maturity (i.e., graduate or at least upper-division) to use this strategy productively.
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