Motivation Matters

4 mins reading

When I led a creative writing workshop in my very first year of teaching, I was handed a one-page plan for the session by the lecturer in charge. This sheet of paper had the year 1997 written in the top right-hand corner. The year I was looking at it was 2005. I distinctly recall the lecturer being somewhat embarrassed when they realised the age of this artifact, and the moment’s obviously stayed with me for a long time…

Waiting for Time to Pass by Richard Phillip Rucker (CC BY 2.0).jpg
Waiting for Time to Pass by Richard Phillip Rücker (CC BY 2.0)

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about motivation. Every now and then it comes through explicitly in blogs I write or videos I make, but the theme is something I think about frequently. I guess you could say the subject motivates me.

As a teacher I’m mostly preoccupied with student motivation. When I first began as a sessional tutor, there seemed to be a strong assumption underpinning university education that it wasn’t the teacher’s job to motivate learners; that this was clearly distinguishable from ‘teaching’. I wouldn’t be able to count the number of times I’ve heard things like ‘students have chosen to be here’, but I’m not going to focus on student motivation here.

I’ve never talked about teacher motivation before, and I haven’t heard others addressing it much either. There’s a fairly intuitive connection between teacher motivation and heightened student learning – backed up by quite a lot of research on the subject – which makes this a pressing issue beyond the issue of educator well-being alone. And when the majority of comments made by teachers about teaching experiences are negative in nature, this might signal a motivation problem needing to be tackled.

Try Something New

Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash.jpg
Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky (free use via Unsplash)

As the example with which I began highlights, things can get ‘stale’ for teachers who (unlike students) typically engage with the exact same unit of study time and again, often for a period of years. Shaking things up doesn’t have to involve a massive overhaul of curriculum; it could be a relatively minor adjustment or addition to the way in which content is delivered or learning is assessed. When motivation feels hard to come by, trying something new can be a great idea.

In the Digital Learning space, the possibilities for experimenting with new forms, platforms, and ways to build connections with and between students are endless. A few suggestions of things I’ve discovered work to motivate me and many others I know would be to network with colleagues (defined broadly beyond an institutional setting alone) and to try working with some media that’s new to you. My previous posts on building a professional-personal learning network and creating teacher-generated content expand on these possibilities. Both of these can directly or indirectly lead to enhanced student engagement, which might be the biggest influence on teacher motivation.

Motivation can’t simply be gauged as if it has an ‘on’/’off’ switch; it’s something that fluctuates over time and solutions that boost one’s motivation will seldom be static either. I won’t go into the interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic factors here, but suffice it to say motivation’s a complex beast. I certainly don’t have all the answers – (de)motivation can impact my work as much as anyone else’s, and I’ll freely admit it’s something I need to consistently reflect on and respond to.

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash.jpg
Photo by Karsten Würth (free use via Unsplash)

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a two-way street. I don’t agree with the dominant discourse, which perpetuates universities in particular, that holds teachers overwhelmingly accountable for the acute and growing engagement issues being experienced across the board. Students have a responsibility to engage as well – to think otherwise would be to infantalise them and deny them their agency as independent learners.

The motivation problem is a two-sided coin, and it’s up to teachers to make the first move. Developing a learning network online, trying out a new digital tool, and engaging with and alongside students to work out solutions seems a productive way forward.

If you motivate your students, they might just motivate you.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what some of your motivation strategies are below or via @digitalzones on Twitter! When have you tried something new? How do you shake things up in your teaching not only for your students, but for you as well?


Featured image: Photo by Arun Sharma (free use via Unsplash)


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