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What is motivation? On one hand we mean motive, or the reason for doing something; on the other we mean the energy and enthusiasm a person invests in the thing that she or he is doing. When teachers are talking about motivating students, it seems to me that the two meanings are conflated. This confusion may come from the part of the students, who occasionally would like their teachers to provide them with reasons and motives pertaining to their life as a whole

For the most part, motivation is synonymous with drive, and the question on how to motivate students is about how to mobilize their interest and their energies so that they complete the tasks the teacher has set out for them during a course or exercise. On this subject, there is wise counsel to be found on the Internet, which for the most part advises teachers on how to improve their pedagogical skills. A great conversation on Twitter illustrates this well.

Some of these methods are all too familiar, but let us count them anyway:

  1. provide incentives for the type of activity you as a teacher want to see more of (class participation, or original presentation, or relevant data searches)
  2. provide clear instructions and a logical structure/ course organization so that there is no room for misunderstanding
  3. use effective communication during lectures and design exercises and exams that are creative and interesting



There could be several other pieces of advice in this “how-to” category, and I invite our readers to contribute some of their own tips and tricks.

I am preoccupied here, however, mostly by the thought that it is the duty of the teacher to make the class function, to make students work. How much of this weight should be carried by the teacher and how much by the students themselves? Our duty is to show convincingly how attractive or relevant our subject is, at least in our eyes; students must take it from there. Or, as @EWAEmily said on Twitter, “You can lead a horse to Steinbeck, but you can't make it drink.”

In my opinion, in order to respond to students’ demands, the teacher must know what are the students’ own motivations to taking the courses, motivation understood in the first meaning, as “motive”. Here I expect to have a large variation of possibilities, according to the disciplines: law and medical students, engineering students and communication students are likely to be more career-oriented, with job and income as high motivation factors. In the humanities and social sciences I would say that the students are pushed forward by an active interest in the actual subject and not as much for the pay-off of the diploma.  What are the students looking for when they seek a university education?

As my support, I bring here some data from Denmark. When asked about the choices of subject for their study, students answer, in a report covering the years 1995-2000, that it is personal interest that informs their choice (95% percent), followed by the practical opportunities offered by the education (38%). This study includes students from all academic study areas, and points out that the intrinsic motivation is the prime reason for students’ initial selection.

Another study, performed on students in the humanities at the University of Copenhagen in 2003, identifies on the basis of a mixed methods approach, outlining five types of motivations regarding the choice of university studies:

  1. Pleasure or interest
  2. Personal development
  3. Career opportunities
  4. Social life during studies
  5. Engagement



If we could generalize on the basis of these five patterns, some students in humanities and social sciences (or maybe even outside these areas), are drawn to study their subject because of their pre-existing personal interest, some others because of the job opportunities after the completion of studies and some others because of the allure of student life, regardless of the actual topic studied.

Teachers can affect and work well with students who follow patterns 1 or 2, interest in the subject matter and personal development, and can improve their pedagogical skills to meet these students’ expectations. What to do with the other students? And finally, is this a “Scandinavian thing”? Do American students prioritize differently?

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

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