I wish my students were motivated by love of subject. But I shouldn’t.

I’ve said it many times: I wish my students were motivated by their love of the subject, not by the course credit or the grade.  We all know what a joy it is to teach someone who’s there because they can’t wait to know more; who reaches toward us for knowledge rather than sitting back to have it delivered; whose eyes sparkle when they learn something new.  Teaching that student is fun, and it’s easy.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our students were like that?

Actually, no.

This post was spurred by a coincidence.  I’d written a few weeks ago about my experience moving a course from a high-stakes midterm to low-stakes weekly quizzes. In that post I’d suggested that if my students are primarily motivated by their grades, then perhaps I’ve designed my course poorly.  Instead, I wondered, “can I teach in such a way that the students study simply because the material is fascinating, or obviously important?”  Just a few days later, I was reading Francis Su’s terrific new book Mathematics for Human Flourishing.  In his Chapter 8, Struggle, he writes about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.  In a classroom setting, these correspond to pleasure in mastery of the subject (intrinsic) and to grades or credit (extrinsic – because they accrue as a byproduct, not a direct consequence, of the mastery).  Su points out that intrinsic motivation rewards students for tackling difficult problems, for engaging in the struggle to learn, for helping their classmates, and various other Good Things.  Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, rewards students equally for gaming the system, for taking the easiest approaches to problems, for working solo, even for cheating.  Su discusses his desire to teach in a way that favours intrinsic over extrinsic motivation.  And there’s the coincidence: that’s exactly what I was ruminating about with respect to my own course.  Couldn’t I somehow make all my students intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated?

Well, it’s a lovely ambition, but no, I can’t; and more than that, I probably shouldn’t*.

Here’s the thing: plenty of experience (mine, and others) suggests that no matter what we do, some of our students – many of our students – will be motivated only extinsically.  They’ll be there for the credit, or the grade; and they won’t have those sparkling eyes I opened with.  And that’s OK.  In fact, for at least three reasons I think it’s a necessary part of our educational system.

First, we structure degree programs so that students have to take courses they aren’t intrinsically interested in – and that’s exactly what we should do!  Anything else would presume that students’ a priori interests are a better measure of what matters to a curriculum – to their education – than our expertise and our experience.  That would be a silly presumption.  If that isn’t immediately obvious to you, let me offer evidence from my own past. As an undergraduate I ran as fast as possible away from any course that smacked of the arts or humanities, loading myself up instead with every science course I could cram in.  That was foolish, and I wish my university hadn’t allowed it.  I understand now that there aren’t impermeable boundaries between science and history, or science and sociology, or science and a lot of other things.  In fact, I’ve just written a whole book that wanders across those boundaries.

Second, we’ll always have students who are at university in the first place for reasons other than intrinsic motivation. They may be there because their choice of career requires a particular credential, for instance, or because they haven’t found themselves yet.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the decisions those students have made (university is, again drawing on my own past experience, and excellent place to find yourself).  Often, a student who’s at university without intrinsic motivation will discover or grow into that motivation while they’re there; but even if they don’t, they may still take value from the experience.

Finally, at something of a meta level, we need to teach that students should take learning seriously even if they aren’t intrinsically interested in the topic. After all, that’s what adults do.  I learn to complete my taxes correctly, and to shop safely during the Covid-19 pandemic, not because I’m pleased by my mastery of those subjects, but because that’s what adults do.

So I’ve been as guilty as anyone of asking, with frustrated gnashing of teeth, “why aren’t my students in class for love of the subject?”  But that’s the wrong question.  The right question is actually two questions: “how can I inspire intrinsic motivation in more students?” and “how can I better reach students who aren’t intrinsically motivated?”.  Of the two, the second is arguably more important than the first.  After all, students who are eagerly and intrinsically interested in what we’re teaching are likely to flourish no matter what we do.  It’s the other students for whom we make the bigger difference.

So yes, it’s a joyful thing to teach the student who loves the subject for its own sake.  But it’s a crucial thing to teach the other ones.  I’ll try to remember that.

© Stephen Heard  May 12, 2020

 Image: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, © Muhammad M Rahman CC BY-SA 4.0 via wikimedia.org.

*^I hope this doesn’t seem like a critique of Mathematics for Human Flourishing.  It’s not.  It’s a wonderful book, and at most I’m pushing back gently against one reading of one paragraph in one thought-provoking chapter.  You should read the book!

13 thoughts on “I wish my students were motivated by love of subject. But I shouldn’t.

  1. crowther

    Great post. Regarding your two questions in the second-to-last paragraph, I personally worry more about the first one; I don’t do particularly well at inspiring intrinsic motivation. I sometimes point out things that happen to be interesting to me, in the hope that they are also interesting to students (even if not on the test), but I should probably work much harder to help students find the aspects that will be inherently interesting to them. This would seem to entail knowing one’s students really well, which, for me, remains a difficult long-term project.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks! I wonder how good we are at assessing our own abilities with respect to the first question. Of course I treasure the occasional comment along the lines of “oh, your course really opened my eyes to entomology” – we all have a good story like that – but such anecdata are of limited use. You are probably better at it than you think!


  2. Tony Diamond

    From my entire undergraduate career I remember one thing only: in Genetics class, John Thoday saying ‘Mobile animals use their mobility to stay put’. That’s the only time that intrinsic motivation was triggered, in three years! So, yes, your conclusion is bang on.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jim Robertson

    I remember (more than a few years ago) when I was in first year Commerce, i dreaded the thought of the English Lit 101 course we had to take. English Lit 101 being for the non-Arts group. I had marks in the 50’s at high school for those subjects (Eng/French Lit and Composition).

    But from the very first class Prof Haines (I still remember his name) made the class a joy to attend. Can’t say what his magic potion was, but I think it was in the humourous manner he lectured, not taking the subject, or himself, too seriously.

    He was well aware no one was in that class by choice, but he made it almost a happy event for many, and less drudgery for others.

    I still didn’t get stellar marks though 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Philip Moriarty

    Fantastic post. Thank you for this.

    ” The right question is actually two questions: “how can I inspire intrinsic motivation in more students?” and “how can I better reach students who aren’t intrinsically motivated?””

    Exactly. And I would say it’s a matter of connection, interaction, and, then, confidence-building. I have always seen my role as a lecturer to be foremost (and second-most, and third-most) about enthusing a class about the material. Yes, there are dangers with “delivering” lectures with a focus on entertainment — deep learning is *hard* — but without engaging the students in the first place we’re on a hiding to nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks. With respect to ‘engaging’ – yes! One point I don’t think I made very clearly is that I believe you can engage students evn when you fall short of inspiring intrinsic motivation. At least, I sure try!


  5. Leslie

    Fantastic post!

    This is such an important thought: “Finally, at something of a meta level, we need to teach that students should take learning seriously even if they aren’t intrinsically interested in the topic. After all, that’s what adults do. I learn to complete my taxes correctly, and to shop safely during the Covid-19 pandemic, not because I’m pleased by my mastery of those subjects, but because that’s what adults do.”

    I haven’t served as a teacher or professor in many years, but the showing people the importance of learning–and of doing critical things and doing them well, even when we don’t find them intrinsically motivating–is providing people a critical life skill. My forebears always told me that “anything worth doing is worth doing well,” and they counted in that category even things like mopping the floor. I don’t find mopping intrinsically motivating, but I must do it, and if I spend time on something, I should at least do myself and the something the respect and honor of a solid effort.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Abigail

    Something that I try to keep in mind is that there’s different degrees of intrinsic motivation. We all have constraints on our time and so no, I don’t expect my students to show up to class if there is zero reason to do so. The one time I tried to audit a class in undergrad (that I was really interested in!) I didn’t even make it to the midterm. Extrinsic motivation has a big place too.

    I know that all of my students won’t find everything interesting (subjects or assignments). But I do hope to be able to reach all of them a little bit, so that they tell people that the class wasn’t a waste of their time. Sometimes that means giving students latitude to pursue projects or skills that they are interested in – choosing topics for papers that they find interesting, showing them that code is a good skill to pursue, etc. Sometimes it means breaking down the disciplinary barriers you talk about in the post to explore the humanities/social science connections in the field. Often it means demonstrating how EEB intersects with medicine.

    None of these things is enough to make students enjoy every second of my classes, but it keeps them happy enough that they on average like the classes, show up on time, complete assignments (and report enjoying some of them), and recommend them to their friends. Which is good enough for me. (Put another way, inverts wouldn’t be a class that fills if it didn’t meet a requirement within the major – extrinsic motivation- but I always get comments on evals that students enjoyed it more than they expected to – intrinsic motivation.)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ambika Kamath

    At the small liberal arts college I went to, my math professor advisor disallowed me from taking only STEM classes. I grew to love poetry, the most impactful classes I took were history and political science, and I now do weird interdisciplinary research that directly stems from that broad training. I’m so glad he didn’t let me think I knew what I needed back then!

    (and great post! something I’ll be thinking about a lot as I gear up to teach a big intro class soonish–thanks for it!)

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. Daniel Cariveau

    I love this post. One my most favorite courses I taught was ornithology. It was an option for biology students to fulfill their ecology requirement. Most of these students were pre-med/health sciences etc. and it was known as one of the “easy” courses. I was concerned when taking on the course because I thought there would be little interest among the students.

    However, I ended up absolutely loving it. One thing that I figured out is that these students had a great grasp of human anatomy and physiology (much better than a community ecologist such as myself). They loved learning the interesting differences in birds (e.g. the respiratory system). That plus getting a bunch of city kids out early in the morning to get their shoes dirty was really a joy.


  10. Becky S

    Where have you been?! I don’t know how I found you, but suddenly your blog appeared. This is the only entry I’ve read so far, but this is exactly what I’ve been going through as a college math instructor. I can just see the ooze of apathy towards math too much and I think it’s been getting worse over the past 25 years of teaching. I have to admit, once we were kept socially distant this past semester, I got a taste of the remote teaching life and loved it. I find my students are contributing much more to discussions, reaching out for help more, and quite frankly more respectful. Thanks again and can’t wait to read more of your blog!


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