Motivation and Community

A few months ago, someone invited me to a hidden Facebook group for college-level instructors to ask questions, share successes, and vent frustrations. I recently left this group after having enough of the unceasing student-bashing. The most common complaint among these instructors is similar to the one I hear most from friends and colleagues, “these students just aren’t motivated.”

My understanding of student motivation comes largely from my experience TAing at Rice University. When Rice started a new freshman writing intensive program in 2012, I, like many other humanities graduate students, signed up to serve as a TA. I was paired with an administrator with a background in organizational and industrial psychology. On the first class he asked the freshmen whether they were driven primarily by external or internal motivation, or, in his terms, whether they sought a “transactional or transformational” experience. On this, their first day of college, he required them to think critically about why they were there and what they were hoping to do.

Three years later, I try to mirror this process as a faculty member. How do I get my students to step outside of the “college as transaction” model and see their education as an opportunity for transformation. How do I shift their motivation from the external rewards of grades to the internal reward of learning for learning’s sake?

This question is informing my third exploration of research on pedagogy. If you’ve missed earlier installments, here are links to my rationale for the series, as well as reports on differentiation and on lecturing vs. active learning. So, what does research say about student motivation and learning?

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is the dominant paradigm social psychologists use for understanding intrinsic motivation. The theory emerged in 1971 when Edward L. Deci published “Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology but it has been notably modified over a series of collaborations between Deci and Richard M. Ryan.

Ironically, the authors of a 2011 study in Research in Higher Education argue that issues of individual motivation might be best addressed through the creation of a community consciousness. The article is Martine Robinson Beachboard, John C. Beachboard, Wenling Li and Stephen R. Addison’s “Cohorts and Relatedness: Self-Determination Theory as an Explanation of How Learning Communities Affect Educational Outcomes,”

The article begins its reflection on intrinsic motivation with a warning from employers. “Employers are complaining about college graduates inability to solve problems on their own,write effectively, or work well in teams.” I cannot resist noting that this discussion of intrinsic versus external motivation begins with the imperatives of market capitalism, but thus is life in the neoliberal academy.

Beachboard et al attempt to apply the SDT articulated in Ryan and Deci’s 2000 American Psychology article entitled “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well Being.” In this article, Ryan and Deci highlight the importance of feelings of relatedness in the generation of intrinsic motivation.  Beachboard et al “propose that cohort participation enhances student feelings of relatedness, which leads to improved student motivation.”

The particular results of this study relate to “formal cohorts” created at an institutional level. Of course, creating a university-wide cohort program is beyond the ability of most of our readers, but what would happen if we start thinking of motivation as an outgrowth of feelings of connectedness? If problems of student motivation are plaguing your classes, perhaps it is worth sacrificing instructional time to create the learning communities that foster these feelings of connectedness.

This is perhaps a useful moment to transition to the theme of my spring blogging. I am teaching an undergraduate digital humanities course that will require considerable collaboration among the students. These reflections on the relationship between motivation and feelings of connectedness have inspired me to form groups within the first week of class and maintain these groups throughout the semester. I will work to foster a sense of community for our class as a whole while also encouraging the students for form their own smaller communities through group work. Stay tuned for a report on whether this emphasis on community leads to noticeable differences in motivation.

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