Connecting the Dots

When I was thinking about what to write this week, I was struck by how much the other topics we have covered in GRAD 5114 relate to the idea of intrinsic motivation as described by Dan Pink. I guess you could say I started connecting the dots a little–


No, no, not like that! More like this:


Yes, that’s better.

Dan Pink discusses how people tend to respond more to intrinsic motivators, like the love of learning or natural interest in a topic, than extrinsic motivators, like money or a perfect grade. Specifically, this occurs when people are faced with a cognitive task rather than a mechanical one. Unfortunately, students have been conditioned to prioritize getting (note: not necessarily earning) a high grade over actually learning something from a class, because it is grades that factor in most directly to graduate school applications, scholarships, and job placements. There are certain questions I hate that I can always count on students to ask: will this be on the test? Did I miss anything important (read: worth points on the test)? Can you make a study guide for us?

So, how can we foster the resurgence of intrinsic motivation? Some of the readings for this week would recommend getting rid of grades completely, and I’m not sure how I (or my students) would feel about that. A lot of what we have learned in this course so far, though, would be helpful to consider. The use of connected and digital learning enables us to make course content directly relevant to problems faced by our students while pulling in a technological component that could allow them to connect with information and scholars from around the world. This approach implies that we need to reflect mindfully on our teaching and move away from the “sage on the stage” model, and also that we need to foster inclusive and learner-centered pedagogical practices in order to make our courses maximally relevant to many different kinds of people and to help students feel comfortable engaging in and helping to direct the class. Of course, these changes won’t be perceived as genuine unless they come from an instructor taking an authentic teaching stance and learning how to balance being professional and directive with being true to their own style in the classroom.

I would say that connecting the dots is really important for helping my students see intrinsic value in my courses, too. With psychology, this is pretty easy to accomplish, as it relates to many commonly experienced phenomena even if a student isn’t ultimately pursuing a career in the field. Even in other fields, though, I think it can be helpful to ask your students why they’re taking your course or why they chose to major in your field. Have them write about it and share with others. Spend a little extra time to find a clip or example; even if it relates only tangentially, it might make students laugh and get them engaged in what you’re talking about (of course, if you find a particularly clever device, they could also see the value in using it to study for the exam…). For example, this week I am creating a lecture about extinction of conditioned behavior, and I put in some images and jokes that relate to dinosaurs. This is clearly not what I mean by extinction in this context, but it will make them laugh and might help them prepare for their weekly quiz on the topic. As another example, I once took a statistics class I wasn’t particularly excited about, one that was comprised of many different majors, including engineering. My teacher used the example of the O-ring failure from the Challenger disaster to illustrate the importance of precision in measurement. This specific example was very relevant to the engineering students in the room, and I could appreciate the example because of the psychological implications of the shuttle crash. It was an interesting way to “humanize” the topic and help us understand why she chose to cover it.

I guess my point is that it doesn’t take a lot to help your students find intrinsic value in what you are teaching. You don’t have to radically alter your teaching style or completely re-design your course. Students will respond to even small, genuine attempts to make the class more relatable for them.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy

5 Responses to Connecting the Dots

  1. shuai287

    I agree that the digital media can actually improve the communication between students and teachers, to inform the teachers about which way is more suitable to improve the course quality. A suitable assessment method is significant to tell the teacher about the conditions of the students. Thus, we need to consolidate the strong correlation between students and faculty.

  2. Ellie

    I don’t have much of a teaching experience, so most of the times I try to see the subjects of this pedagogy course from the student’s view. I have to say as a student, genuine attempts of teachers has always kept me engaged in the classroom, as you mentioned. I remember in high school, I was really good at courses that were taught by good teachers. I mean, most subjects could be interesting if taught by teachers who are enthusiastic about them!

  3. Mohan Qin

    I totally agree with you. To help students to find the intrinsic value of your class is really important. But do you think we still need the evaluation system to grade students?

    • Yes, I do think grades are still important and it is difficult for me to imagine how I would evaluate my students’ progress without grades. I would just like to make the class interesting and relevant enough that students can look beyond the grade when they measure what they learned from the course.

  4. judsonabraham

    Your post reminded me of one of the best science teachers I ever studied with. This was a geology professor who would constantly bring in political examples (like Kuwait provoking the Gulf War by drilling horizontally for Iraq’s oil or the Army Corps of Engineers failing to build reliable levies in New Orleans) to illustrate geological concepts. I think you have a good point in saying that we do not really need to radically change our course content to get some motivation from students. Just like I was enthused merely by the mention of political events in a geology class, taking the extra effort to bring in outside subjects relevant to different fields will probably be enough to pique certain students’ interests. It should at least be enough to make the class tolerable for otherwise uninterested students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.