Blog 7 or What I Learned about Student Motivation in 1,000 Words

My blog project focused on best practices in terms of fostering student reading motivation. My inquiry has led to shocking revelations!

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OK, not really, but there was one nice surprise. One of the dominant ideologies I’ve encountered in the field of composition is that teachers should always strive to be as non-directive as possible. It is best, I’ve been told by some instructors, to let students struggle alone to build competence in academic reading and writing. To me, however, this does not make a lot of sense. Why wait for students to reinvent the wheel? As instructors, we know there are some nifty little strategies out there to help students read more effectively. Why not share and help students feel empowered and good about the knowledge they are gaining?

As a student, I’ve learned very productively with a more direct style of instruction. Having someone explain where I am going wrong and offer some strategies to help me solve problems is empowering. Conversely, the power dynamic feels weird when instructors withhold knowledge about strategies and techniques. It’s like the teacher is the holder of some esoteric, priestly knowledge that I, a mere novice, haven’t earned access to yet. What is this? The Church of Scientology? I’ll pass on the kool-aid, thanks, just gimme the tools.

As a tutor and teacher, I’ve also had good success, provided my interaction is in a coaching/collaborative style, as opposed to an authority figure throwing down the readin’ and writin’ absolutist laws. My view is that learning should be collaborative. We are adults in college. We should share knowledge, not hoard it. That said, the middle way seems the wise choice. Students do need to struggle to build their skills in reading and writing. I just think we should support them in their struggles by giving them the tools to succeed.

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So, lo and behold,  I was thrilled to review Dawson R. Hancock’s Influencing Postsecondary Students’ Motivation to Learn in the Classroom. Hancock did a study published in College Teaching that looks at highly structured versus unstructured classrooms and their impact on student motivation.  She finds that students who are self-motivated, abstract thinkers need less direction. However, for students who tend to think more concretely, teacher direction increases motivation.

In my second blog on motivation, I reviewed Understanding the Motivation Problems of At-Risk College Students by Donna L. Mealey. Her work – as the title cleverly suggests! – examines reading motivation in high-risk populations.

This article provides a brief review of the literature on this topic. Mealey asserts that students with a history of poor academic achievement can improve their performance if they can learn to:

  • Take responsibility for their own learning,
  • Recognize that their success or failure is determined by the level of effort they invest, and
  • View themselves as college learners.

Mealey argues that low-achieving students arrive with negative beliefs about themselves that impede their success. If students do not believe they can be successful, they will lack the motivation to work hard enough to be successful. This seems pretty obvious. Who wants to work hard at something you think you will fail at no matter how hard you try?

She also explores the impact of metacognitive reading practices. It turns out it’s all about student-driven inquiry as well as the students’ sense of control over their own learning. To help students become aware, metacognitive learners, she suggests the use of journaling techniques that can help students increase their awareness of their beliefs about learning and that allow for the exploration of their motivations, attitudes, time-management and study skills and emotions. The ultimate goal here is to put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning process. This all sounds good, but, just sayin’, I found the methodology a bit weak in Mealey’s study. She did not conduct any new research on her topic and her conclusions and recommended learning strategies are derivative. Moreover, if her intent is to provide a review of the literature, she reviews a pretty paltry number of sources. Okay, got that off my chest, and movin’ on.

Numerous other articles, as well as our class discussions, have improved my understanding of motivation practices in reading.  Here are some highlights:

Get to know your students. One-to-one conferences, journals, diagnostics, etc., can help you understand the needs of a diverse student population and tailor the class work to meet divergent needs. Making a conscious effort to build community is important too. Conferences and classroom dialogue can help you connect with students. Facilitate students getting to know each other as well. Horizontal relationships can allow unmotivated students to be inspired and coached by motivated students. Motivated students might get even more motivated through sharing their interests with other students. Yay! Building peer and teacher-student relationships apparently improves achievement and motivation. It’s all good! Andrew J. Martin and Martin Dowson’s Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues, and Educational Practice provides a comprehensive review of the literature on the relationship between motivation and achievement and interpersonal relationships. They bring together findings on a number of motivation theories, including attribution theory, expectancy-value theory and goal theory to look at how motivation can be conceptualized in terms of relational practices. Guess what? “[P]ositive relationships with significant others are cornerstones of young people’s capacity to function effectively in social, affective, and academic domains.”

Student driven inquiry. Need we even say it again? Yes! Student. Driven. Inquiry. Motivation is linked to interest, which is linked to choice. Let students chose what they want to read and write about, perhaps within teacher-guided limits depending on the class and student. It also helps to link the classroom content to student’s lives. In other words, it’s a good thing to encourage students to work on topics that are related to real issues in their lives.  One article I really liked, Response to literature as a cultural activity, by Lee Galda and Richard Beach, advocates a socio-cultural perspective. They offer a number of educational practices, but one practice with middle-school students sounds particularly appealing to me. Students examined political and educational systems as well as hierarchal social organization (such as gender and religious power relationships) in medieval novels. Students got into it, especially religious beliefs and gender constructs, which lead them to want to reexamine these constructs in their lives and in contemporary culture.

Strategies! Finally, the reading I did reinforced the value of reading strategies such as predictive reading strategies, KWL+, and double journal entries. Finally, let’s not forget good ol’ metacognition! Introduce the student to her-/his-self! In other words, create opportunities for students to become aware of their metacognitive strategies.

Well, I guess it’s time for me to ride off into the reading and writing sunset, files and mind stuffed with knowledge and strategies, ready to set classrooms across the Bay Area afire (figuratively that is)! Well, after summer break that is. Whew.

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