Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students in studio-oriented programs aren’t motivated in non-studio courses.

Students aren’t confident about the skills required for work in non-studio classes.

Students in fields like music, drama, or art may feel more confident about their creative or performing skills than they do about the writing, research, analytical, or oral presentation skills needed for work in non-studio courses. If these non-studio tasks cause them anxiety, they are likely to be reluctant to engage in them.


Break down complex skills and provide isolated practice.

If students lack competence and confidence in the skills your course requires (e.g., reading, writing, research), their motivation may be low. It can be helpful to break complex skills – which actually combine many component skills – into more manageable pieces and focus students’ attention on one skill at a time. For example, you might begin by asking students to summarize particular readings. Then you might ask students to compare two readings, which requires the ability to summarize plus the ability to evaluate critically. Finally, you might ask students to synthesize a number of author’s perspectives into a literature review, which requires the ability to summarize, the ability to evaluate critically, and the ability to make an argument in relation to this literature. In other words, you can build these skills gradually, adding increasing complexity and integration.

Assign interim deadlines

Complex tasks, such as writing a research paper, can be daunting, especially if students lack confidence or experience. Students may have little sense of how to subdivide the task, plan an approach, or manage their time. It can be helpful to divide a large task into a set of interim deadlines. For example, if you assign a research paper, you might ask students to begin by submitting an idea, then a bibliography, then a literature review, then an argument, and finally a complete draft. Breaking complex tasks into smaller ones and providing feedback on each of these separately can help students see the parts that comprise the whole, develop greater confidence, and move towards higher levels of mastery and integration.

Consider alternative forms of writing.

When students write according to what they think are academic conventions, their prose is often awkward and convoluted. This is compounded if they feel anxious about writing, as some students do. Sometimes it is helpful to assign different kinds of writing (e.g., program notes, a letter to a potential donor, wall text for an exhibit, an op-ed piece, a dialog) instead of formal academic papers to focus students’ attention on clear, persuasive communication. Properly structured, these kinds of assignments can be as analytically rigorous as academic papers and yield better writing. Remember, though, that students may not be as familiar with some of these writing genres as you are, so be sure to provide some guidance and models. Depending on the goals of your course, you might also consider enlisting forms of writing students that already engage in (e.g, “Imagine that Romeo and Juliet had Twitter. What would they be tweeting that would express the political and cultural sensibilities of the time as well as their particular circumstances?”). Moving temporarily away from formal academic writing can focus students’ attention on communicating clearly, while helping them build confidence and develop their own voice. Eventually, you can transition students to writing in a formal academic style, if that is your goal.

This site supplements our 1-on-1 teaching consultations.
CONTACT US to talk with an Eberly colleague in person!