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    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

More on motivating students (and ourselves). (NOTE: A portion of this blog post was accidentally cut yesterday. Today the full post appears.)

March 21, 2012

I get my title from Daniel Pink’s work on motivation (check out this great little animated video). My FYC students and I are at the point this semester where I think we’re all asking, why are we here and what are we doing this for, partly out of sheer exhaustion. We’re also at the point in Now You See It where Cathy Davidson highlights how the nature of work and the workforce is changing rapidly, and possibly for the better.  My students see these innovative, interesting, fun learning and working opportunities, and (rightly) wonder, then what the hell am I doing following an increasingly standardized curriculum? I don’t think it has much to do with the subject/class itself, but how the course is set up, because I’m not having these same issues in my peer-driven course. At all.

I asked my students about what motivates them. They all basically said, in different language and before I showed them the Daniel Pink video: autonomy, mastery, purpose. Interestingly (to me, in any case), they never mentioned money. But when I ask them why they are attending university, each and every one of them say that it is so that they can get a good-paying job that also won’t likely kill them (ie, mining). I showed them the disconnect between what they identified as motivating factors for themselves and their (stated) motivation for coming to college; if money was an effective motivating tool, then they would all be working as hard as they could to earn good marks in my class, so they can graduate as quickly as possible and go out and get that job and earn that money.

Clearly, money isn’t everything.

Bill Gates tweeted something the other day that really made me angry. He tweeted that to reduce the college drop-out rate, we should better connect course work with careers. But we’ve largely already done that. In fact, if you read what employers say students are missing, it’s the “soft skills” (adaptability, critical thinking), not the technical knowledge. Short of making students read these sorts of employer surveys once a week, we’re already turning ourselves inside out trying to show how our classes are linked to their future work-place success.

And it isn’t working. It is clear to me that it isn’t working because my peer-driven, 200-level class is busily and happily working away, building their projects, which they can’t wait to share with me and their classmates after Spring Break. They have all selected topics and projects that are of interest to them, which may or may not be directly related to their future job prospects (in one class, more than half the groups selected to work on “War and Peace”; only one of the groups consisted of ROTC students). In fact, we never once discussed how what they are doing and how they are doing it would, in fact, be quite beneficial to their future work-place success. But because we embraced autonomy, mastery, and purpose (beyond, because it will help you get a job), they are truly doing great work, and doing it gladly.

I’ve written about motivating students before, about using carrots and sticks, deadlines and failing grades. My thinking on this issue is clearly a work in progress; when I started teaching in the university over ten years ago now, I would have laughed at you if you would have told me that I would embrace peer-driven learning. In fact, thinking about it, how many of us got into the university because of the ideas of autonomy, mastery, and purpose? Giving over autonomy to the students largely means giving up a certain form of autonomy, at least in terms of your identity as an instructor.  I think one of the reasons my FYC class isn’t working is because neither my students nor myself have the degree of autonomy we want in teaching the course.

This is going to be a huge challenge for higher education going forward. We are increasingly moving towards standardized learning outcomes and measurements, course outlines and requirements, slowly removing the autonomy that a professor has had in her or his classroom. One problem is the increasing numbers of adjunct professors, who both need the standardized, plug-and-play course design because of the last-minute nature of their employment and the overwhelming number of courses they work, but who are also excluded from the conversations that surround choices being make about the curriculum.

You take away an instructor’s autonomy in the classroom, you take away one of the largest motivating factors that lead many of us to want to become college teachers. You also limit the ability of students to discover their own autonomy and embrace it accordingly. We’re crushing our teachers, who have both mastery and purpose, and we’re limiting out students, who are rarely empowered with autonomy to achieve mastery or discover their purpose.

It’s embarrassing to me to have taken this long to come to this particular conclusion. But being in the system, set up the way it is, and being successful at it did a good job of blinding me. Now, realizing it and being able to do something about it, well, it makes putting my mistakes out here for everyone to see seem easy.


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