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Students do not perceive the classroom climate as supportive.
Students’ motivation to exert effort in a course or persist in a major is affected by classroom climate: the combined intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which students learn. If students perceive the environment as supportive and feel included and heard, their motivation will likely be enhanced. On the other hand, if students perceive the environment as unsupportive or feel marginalized by the classroom climate or the course content, it may erode their motivation to engage with the material or even continue in the field. Although we as instructors cannot control all the factors that contribute to classroom climate, we do have a significant influence on how classroom dynamics develop, especially early in the course, and can use that opportunity to enhance and sustain motivation.
Your students will form impressions from the syllabus and first day of class that can influence their motivation for the entire semester. Consider, for example, the motivational difference between a “scolding” syllabus focused on warnings and potential penalties and a syllabus that challenges students to excel, while also employing a friendly tone, suggesting study strategies, and offering help. Do not miss the opportunity created by the first day and your syllabus to create the kind of classroom climate that motivates effort and engagement. Try to employ language on your syllabus that conveys both high performance expectations and appropriate support, and plan first-day activities that help establish rapport and a sense of common purpose among students.
If students feel recognized and acknowledged as individuals, it is likely to increase their motivation to attend class, prepare, participate, and ask for help from you or one another—rather than withdraw or give up—when they encounter setbacks. There are many ways to convey respect for students as individuals, including learning their names and providing opportunities for them to learn each other’s names. You can ask about their academic and other interests. You can invite them to chat with you during office hours. If possible, you can occasionally attend student events outside of class time (e.g., theatrical or musical productions, sports competitions). While learning names and establishing a connection with students is more difficult in large classes than in small classes, it is not impossible. To this end, some instructors have their students put name tents on their desks, arrange to meet informally with groups of students outside of class time, or collect information on students’ backgrounds and interests.
The degree to which students feel welcome and respected in a course or in a field influences their motivation. Consequently, we might want to consider whether our course content (e.g., the topics we address and the readings, activities, examples, and analogies we use) is sufficiently inclusive. For example, an instructor teaching immigration history might choose readings that represent a diversity of political opinions, so that students with different political leanings feel that there is a place for them in the discussion. Similarly, a statistics professor might want to avoid heavy use of illustrations and analogies that presume cultural knowledge (e.g., about football or baseball) that not all students share. While it is possible to go overboard worrying about inclusiveness, it is nevertheless useful to review your course content and make sure it does not convey any unintentionally demotivating messages about who does and does not belong in the course or in the field.
Our assumptions about students influence the way we interact with them, and which can affect their motivation and, in turn, their learning. It’s It is important, therefore, to hold consider those these assumptions up to scrutiny carefully. This is true whether the assumptions have are negative or positive valences. For example, if we assume that students of one group will struggle with writing, and convey that through subtle messages, it is potentially discouraging and demotivating to those students. Assuming that students of another demographic naturally excel at math can be demotivating as well, especially for members of that group who may need, but not feel comfortable asking for, help.
Tension, conflict, and incivility in the classroom are potentially demotivating. Students can alienate others with their choice of words (e.g., “What an idiotic question!”), their tone (e.g., cynical or belittling), and their body language (e.g., raised eyebrows or smirks). Thus, it can be helpful to establish ground rules for interaction, particularly in discussion, lab, or studio courses where there is considerable student-student interaction. Ground rules (pdf) lay out your expectations for a civil and productive exchange of ideas. They may recommend, for example, that students build on each other’s ideas; listen attentively; refrain from interrupting; refer to one another by name; and criticize ideas, not people. To encourage student investment in ground rules, some faculty members involve students in the process of creating them. Bear in mind that simply establishing ground rules may not be sufficient; you may need to occasionally remind students about the rules and address behavior that violates them.
If students feel that they have no control over the classroom climate or if they sense that the instructor does not care about their experience in the course, it can decrease their motivation. This may be particularly true in courses that deal with controversial topics, where conflicts and tensions in the classroom can erode motivation if not addressed productively. Hence, it can be useful to set up processes that allow students to reflect on and share with you what they are thinking and feeling. There are a number of ways to do this. One is to administer an early course evaluation that specifically asks about climate issues. Another is to appoint a student representative who can share (anonymous) feedback from the class. Asking for students’ opinions, and taking them into account as you shape the course and address issues in the classroom, increases students’ investment in the course and consequently their motivation.
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