Understanding Student Motivation

When I first landed in teaching more years ago than I care to admit, I believed that it was my responsibility as an instructor to motivate my students to be successful. It didn’t matter whether they were the star football player, dreading writing an essay in English Composition I, or a GED student who had a poor, prior educational experience. I believed their success had more to do with my teaching and the classroom atmosphere I created than with their efforts. After all, if I did my job, the students should want to do their best…right? Well, not always!

This mindset, though heartfelt and well meant, was naive at best. As you can image, there have now been many times, when despite my best efforts, students failed a test, a course, or even stopped persisting altogether. After all, we have probably all heard the cliche, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”

It wasn’t until I was introduced to the concept of On Course that I began to understand more about student motivation. In his text, On Course Strategies for Creating Success in College and Life, Skip Downing defined motivation with the formula V x E = M. “In this formula, “V” stands for value…”E” stands for expectation…In a nutshell, the V x E = M formula says that you level of motivation in college is determined by multiplying your value score by your exception score.” In other words, the more a student values their education and expects to do well, the higher their motivation will be.

Yet, I have found that it does not always follow that a student who has a high degree of motivation will be successful. Why?

Several years ago, a team member and I began discussion our observations on this topic. We noticed that many students came to NWTC very motivated. They valued their educational opportunity; they even expected to do well. By all accounts, the student appeared like they will be successful. However, several weeks into their course of study, they would stop persisting, and if they did return, they would not do so for weeks or often months. When students did return, we usually found that they had encountered a substantial “fork in the road,” that had thrown them off their projected course. (If you think of a student’s educational experience as a race course, then this experience was a very high, seemingly insurmountable hurdle.)

In that discussion, we made modifications to the motivation formula. Our result was V x E = M/ Current Circumstances. In explanation, if the circumstances were greater than the motivation than the student would stop persisting. If the motivation was greater than the circumstance, the student would stay the course. The most common circumstances usually involved unexpected financial situations, inadequate childcare, a change in work schedule, or the perception of outside familial obligations greater than that of their own education.

Every student responds differently to circumstances. This response is influenced by many factors – family background/beliefs, socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, acceptance in various degrees of social relationship, and one I have only recently learned about – the presence or absence of traumas in a person’s life.

Even when a student takes personal responsibility for their response to an undesirable circumstance, the outcome is not always positive. To use an On Course example, there are times when an escalator stops. Though I can’t control the circumstance, I need to take responsibility for myself and walk up the stairs. However, what if the escalator was an elevator? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be able to climb my way out of an elevator shaft, no matter how motivated I was. I would be pressing the “HELP” button – several times over!

Thankfully, NWTC has many options when it comes to the “HELP” button in the form of student services. The sooner we can connect students to these services, the more likely it will be that their motivation will overcome their current circumstance. I have had the opportunity to see some of these services in operation, and they truly do make a difference in many students lives.

So, how can you motivate your students? It starts with creating a welcoming  environment in your class where students feel safe. Then, listen and observe. When something doesn’t seem right – ask. Then, connect or refer students to the proper service.

Student success really does take a village, and thankfully, we have a pretty great one!




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