How can you motivate people to do something they wouldn’t normally do? It’s a difficult question, and clearly one that’s near the heart of teaching.
All the knowledge, preparation, and pedagogical techniques in the world won’t help you in the classroom if you can’t convince students to come along with you. Particularly if you, like many faculty members, are moving away from a lecture-heavy model of teaching to one that makes more use of class discussion and group work, you need your students to be motivated to learn. Student-centered teaching depends on quality student participation, which in turn depends on student motivation.
Most of the time, our main weapons in the fight to motivate students are the grades we give out. To be sure, grades also exist to give an accurate picture of student performance. But grades typically exist as both rewards and punishments to nudge students into approaching the course the way we think they should.
Think about the way you construct your syllabi. You’ll devote a higher percentage of the final grade to assignments you think are more important or difficult. You’ll assign regular quizzes if you want to make sure students come to class prepared. You’ll threaten to dock their essay grades if they turn their papers in late. That’s how we tackle the idea of student motivation in higher education: Students understand the rules of the game, and if they fail to follow them, their grades (and presumably their future prospects) will suffer.
The tricky thing is that, while it’s easy to come up with any number of carrots and sticks to prompt students to do better, decades of research have shown that such so-called extrinsic rewards and deterrents are not particularly effective tools. In fact, in many studies, subjects who were offered extrinsic rewards to complete a complex task actually performed worse than when they weren’t given rewards.
When grades are the main driving force behind our students’ motivation, instead of trying to master the material for their own benefit and assimilate it into their prior knowledge, students figure out what’s expected of them to attain a good grade and act accordingly. In addition, if we want students to develop a lifelong interest in a subject, extrinsic motivators are problematic; after graduation, when the rewards for learning are gone, the interest disappears.