By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs At Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence
When we first started dating, my husband Mike and I quickly realized we would each have to do some work in order to learn about the other person’s interests. He had trouble appreciating my passion for music, seeing little purpose for it in his life, and I perceived physics as inaccessible, too difficult and hypertechnical for me to understand. While we both wanted to learn more about each other, we felt a level of reluctance dedicating time and energy to exploring subjects that felt inconsequential to our respective lives. But we liked each other enough that we began to adopt practices that made the pursuit of each other’s interests manageable and even fun. I explained connections between particular songs and meaningful emotional and spiritual experiences I remembered having, and Mike began introducing me to the complexities of physics on an elementary level using YouTube videos and object lessons. Pretty soon we were each voluntarily scheduling “music” and “science” dates, both having realized that learning about the other’s interests has a strong payoff; it can contribute to a lasting and meaningful relationship.
Without realizing it, Mike and I were putting into practice key concepts from B. D. Jones’s model of academic motivation. In his article “Motivating Students to Engage in Learning: the MUSIC Model of Academic Motivation,” Jones (2009) suggests that five principles, when applied to course design, can facilitate increased motivation among college students. These principles include empowerment, usefulness, success, interest, and caring. While some of these concepts are best implemented before the semester even starts, many of them can be incorporated in the middle of the term to inject new life into a class that feels tired or unmotivated.
Jones begins with empowerment. He writes, “a key principle in [self-determination theory] is that individuals enjoy activities when they believe that they have control over some aspect of them” (274). For me, this is the most difficult of the five concepts to employ because it means trusting that my students will be responsible with the level of control I give them. But that trust is precisely part of what makes empowerment so impactful. Jones suggests giving students “meaningful choices” regarding the structure of the course. For example, if you require students to complete 10 writing journals or quizzes throughout the course of the semester, offer three dates on which they are due instead of scheduling each one of them. This allows students to work at their own pace (274). In a recent Flourishing Academic post, Dr. Jerry Minsinger of Duquesne’s School of Education also suggests involving students in creating course policies. Mid-semester you can use an informal evaluation to ask students what practices they would like you to adopt or change. Incorporating their feedback is one way of helping them experience a level of control over their education.
The second principle Jones identifies is usefulness. Students are more likely to approach class content with energy and purpose if they understand “the usefulness of the task in terms of [their] future goals” (275). All too often, we as instructors assume our students understand why our course is important for their career, but this should never be implicit. I recently spoke with one instructor at Duquesne who periodically asks his students to write a brief reflection on how they might use the knowledge from his class in specific future situations. I like to highlight usefulness by connecting course content to the community outside the class, helping students see that a well-crafted argument can raise awareness about a critical issue or even persuade city government that change is necessary.
Third, Jones argues that “instructors should design all aspects of courses such that students can succeed if they obtain the knowledge and skills and put forth the effort required” (276). Perception is a powerful tool. Jones notes that “students who believe that they are likely to succeed at an activity are more likely to . . . put forth more effort . . . persist longer . . . [and] be resilient in the face of adverse situations” related to that activity (276). Setting students up for success does not mean making your courses easy. It does mean making the requirements manageable. Jones suggests “divid[ing] longer and more complex learning activities into manageable sections that challenge but do not overwhelm students” (276) and offering students regular feedback measuring “their level of competence” and helping them identify “attainable (but challenging), short-term goals that lead to longer-term goals” (277).
Fourth on Jones’s list is interest. Most of us who teach naturally find the content of our courses interesting but students don’t necessarily share our passion. Drawing from research by Hidi and Renninger (2006), Jones notes that while a student’s interest is piqued by “hands-on activities,” hot button issues, humor and more, that interest will diminish if not cultivated into “individual interest,” a state during which a student has “obtain[ed]” and now “value[s]” knowledge. This transformation happens as instructors build on attention-getting activities with content specific instruction (Jones 278). In last week’s blog post, Dr. Susan Hines makes a similar suggestion. She recommends beginning by “awakening students’ current knowledge” and then building on that connection by “adding new knowledge.”
And finally Jones contends that caring is central to engaging students. He doesn’t call on instructors to become “good buddies with the[ir] students” but he does recommend demonstrating that you care “about their learning” and “well-being.” Accomplishing this can be as simple as paying careful attention to each student’s progress and contacting any of them who appear to be struggling (279) or offering grace when a student encounters an extraordinary situation and needs an extension (280).
For Mike and I, caring and interest came first and the other steps made learning about music and physics not just doable but desirable. Since those early years, each of us has developed a sustained interest in the other’s favorite subject. Mike invites me to concerts and I stage science experiments in the kitchen. The fear of a subject being too hard or a lack of connection to it does not have to prevent your students from engaging deeply with course content. It’s possible to craft your class so that students not only become interested but also work hard to gain a deeper understanding.