Explore Strategies - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students lack interest or motivation.

Students do not believe that their efforts will improve their performance.

If students do not believe that their efforts are likely to improve their performance, they will not be motivated to work hard. Motivation can be affected, for instance, if a course that has a reputation for being inordinately difficult. Students may also have had discouraging experiences in similar courses or on early assignments in a course that convince them they cannot do the work. Additionally, students have beliefs about intelligence and learning that can affect their motivation. If they believe learning is generally fast and easy (and should not be slow or arduous), they may lose motivation when they encounter challenges. Similarly, if they believe intelligence is a fixed quantity (something you do or do not have, but not something you acquire over time), they may not see the point of extra effort. Finally, if students attribute their success to their innate talents rather than effort, they may not be motivated to work. This can happen whether they believe they possess the necessary abilities (“I’m a good writer; I don’t need to start my paper early”) or lack them (“I’m just no good at math. What’s the point of trying?”)

Strategies:

Identify an appropriate level of challenge.

Create multiple opportunities for practice and feedback.

Teach effective study strategies.

Give students opportunities to reflect on their study strategies.

Help students set realistic expectations.

Identify an appropriate level of challenge.

To motivate students, we need to set standards that are challenging but attainable with reasonable effort. To identify an appropriate level of difficulty, it is important to know what prior knowledge and experiences your students bring to the course so you know where to begin and how fast to proceed. Administering diagnostic or early assessments can help you to determine the right level of challenge for your students. It can also be helpful to talk to instructors who have taught your course successfully in the past and to look at their syllabi for clues about the appropriate level of difficulty.

Create multiple opportunities for practice and feedback.

Students’ motivation will increase if they see that their efforts are helping them make progress towards a goal. Hence, it is important to provide opportunities for students to (1) practice using skills and knowledge in a low-stakes environment, (2) receive timely, constructive feedback, and (3) incorporate that feedback into subsequent work. The opportunity to receive feedback and use it to improve subsequent performance can build students’ confidence and work against unproductive beliefs about learning and intelligence —for example, if a student believes he is not good at math but then finds himself improving with practice, he may rethink his beliefs about his own capabilities and even the nature of learning. It is important to note that offering more opportunities for students to practice does not have to create an undue grading burden for faculty, especially if the performance criteria are clearly spelled out and the feedback is very targeted.

Teach effective study strategies.

If students work hard with little result, it can quickly undermine their motivation. Instructors should consider giving students tips on how to study and work effectively, for example how to read articles (e.g., skim headings, review sources and tables, identify the author’s argument) and solve problems in their discipline (e.g., formulate the problem, identify constraints, generate possible solutions). Advice about studying is particularly helpful for first-year students who may lack study skills and strategies appropriate for college-level work. But it is also helpful for students who are new to a discipline and may not employ approaches to reading, writing, and solving problems that are disciplinarily appropriate. By explicitly teaching productive study habits, instructors can help students achieve a greater payoff for their efforts, which enhances motivation as well as learning.

Give students opportunities to reflect on their study strategies.

One way to enhance motivation is to ask students to reflect on how their study strategies impacted their performance on previous tasks. For example, an instructor might ask students to complete a “wrapper” following an exam, with questions such as “What did you do to prepare for this exam or assignment? What skills do you need to work on? How would you prepare differently if you were doing it again?” Similarly, an instructor may ask students to reflect on how they approached a writing assignment (e.g., “How long in advance did you begin? How many times did you revise before submitting the final version?”). Questions such as these cue students to strategies they may not have thought to employ. It can also help students see the value of effort, while increasing their sense of control over outcomes. Finally, the opportunity to reflect can help students identify specific strategies that leverage their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.

Help students set realistic expectations.

If students have unrealistic expectations of the time it will take them to perform a task or master a skill, they may get discouraged when it takes longer or requires more effort. Consequently, it is helpful to address naïve beliefs directly and help students set more realistic expectations. For instance, you might want to disabuse students of the notion that good papers are written in one sitting and discuss the need to start writing early and leave time for planning and revision. You might also divide an assignment into stages (e.g., planning, research, writing, revision) and give students an estimate of the time they should plan to spend on each stage. Alternately, you might tell students about your own frustrations as a student or researcher and describe how you overcame various obstacles. Seeing that intelligent, accomplished people sometimes struggle to gain mastery—and that learning does not happen without effort—can prompt students to revise their own expectations about learning and to persevere when they encounter difficulty.

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learning principles

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. MORE>
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. MORE>
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. MORE>
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned. MORE>
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. MORE>
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning. MORE>
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. MORE>