Motivation: Success Feels Possible – Part 2

14 Nov

In looking at a course syllabus – from description to aims to activities, assessments and climates – students do ask as they read: “Can I do this?”  More specifically, they will look for evidence in course materials and websites regarding “How can I come to do these things required of me?” Students also gather evidence about whether and how they will be supported as learners learning in early interactions with teachers and with peers. 

In these early observations of classrooms, student expectations of success can be diminished – and their resistance to new, and necessary, ways of learning often increases. What, for example, might prompt a learner’s negative response to “Can I do it?” In these contexts, as teachers what strategies and practices might we draw on in planning a course to better support learners as we design courses, activities, and assessments?

In part this begins with understanding some basic theories of learning that students – and teachers – bring to learning. In Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from Learning Science, James Lang suggests attending to research focusing on understanding “fixed” and “growth” mindsets (see chart below) to help us to sequence teaching and learning activities that convey high expectations and support learners as they move through a sequence of activities engaging them in doing course work related directly to the learning goal.


For an analysis of growth and fixed mindsets in relation to development of cultural competence, see the post What’s Missing from “Cultural Competency” Conversations? Attention to Growth Mindsets, and/or the talking points chart embedded in that post.  

We can also sequence learning activities and assignments so that students work to learn about, apply, test, and re-apply something learned to a next challenge. In this way learning and testing are cumulative. Also, by bringing higher level application of content and skills to classroom learning spaces – or online group-based learning spaces – we can see students’ learning, which provides opportunities for immediate feedback to individuals, small groups, and entire classes. In verbalizing the feedback we can clarify expectations set out in print and online documents. And, alongside our feedback, we can make use of a self-assessment or reflective writing prompt to have students’ document the day’s learning and plan for next steps. For learners, this writing can become an outline “Here’s how I can do it.” For teachers, a quick review of what students have written can help understand “How are they learning?” and “What actions can I take next class [next week, next assignment, next year] to move forward with learning?”

Assignment Wrappers – short activities that direct students to review their performance on a particular course assignment or requirement, engage students in applying feedback, extending new learning, and/or adjusting their future learning practices – are excellent heuritic to draw into our plans for supporting student learning. Assignment Wrappers ask students to address four basic questions in a short written, reflective self-assessment. For example:

  • How did you prepare for the exam? What kinds of errors did you make on the exam? What could they do differently next time? [At the end of a second and all other follow up exams: What have you learned about yourself as a learner in preparing for the types of exams you have completed for this course?]
  • What have you and/or peers identified as strengths of your paper/presentation? What is one segment of your paper/presentation that still troubles you? What one question do you want the teacher to respond to when s/he review this draft? [With the final version of a paper or presentation: What feedback from peers and teachers have you accepted, adapted, and/or axed? And why?]

Wrapper activities can provide a solid foundation for supporting student learning – with regard to metacognition, skill development, and deep learning – in a range of disciplines and for a number of assignment types, including project and paper development, labs and experiments, field work and interviewing, design and fine arts, and teaching and community engagement practicums.

Wrappers provide us with data about learning processes and practices in light of teacher and peer instruction. When we design wrappers, we are also drawing on our expertise as we show students how to look at their own learning in light of skills and strategies they must develop for ongoing use in specific disciplines. We can also provide expert advice in several more basic ways:

  • Offer a reading strategy as part of a homework assignment. That is, if you have a selected more than one reading for a class session, list them in an order students should read them, and provide guiding question or contextualizing sentence to orient students to the reading. This small action can focus students again on purpose (why this reading), can productively engage emotion (what’s significant about this reading), and can support learning (why and how am I to read this).
  • In setting out an assignment, be transparent about the task, purpose, and audience for a given assignment – all of which supports being transparent about how and why to learn this particular collection of material. If you want students to read or prepare in a particular way, take a minute to tell them (teach them) about What Works for Studying, what doesn’t, and why something does or doesn’t work.

Do these actions constitute “hand holding” or “spoon feeding”? My contention, based on reading new and foundational motivation-related research over the past year as well as on my teaching experience, is that they do not. I reserve those phrases to describe the traditional didactic approach to teaching and learning that would posit students learn best by listening to how we as teacher-scholars think through and organize knowledge.

Instead, the picture that emerges for me in reviewing the motivation scholarship is that when we take actions to support learning we elevate purpose, we un-hide the curriculum so that students might see the many ways (the hows and whys) knowledge is produced, and we illuminate ways of learning so that student can see where they are and plan for where they want to be.

Key Resources


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