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?
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!