Well-known cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer offers a succinct analysis of motivation in his excellent workbook monograph titled Applying the Science of Learning. He begins with a definition: “Motivation is an internal state that initiates and maintains goal-directed behavior.” (p. 39) This means that motivation is personal; it occurs within the student. When present, motivation activates behavior. Motivated students work hard to understand the material. Their behavior is persistent and characterized by intensity. They are focused on accomplishing a goal. The definition makes clear that motivation is a prerequisite to learning. Meaningful learning simply does not occur unless effort is expended.
The skills that students learn in our courses, such as organization, critical thinking, problem solving, and time management are essential. Do students ever ask you that question? As an assistant professor of mathematics at a community college, I regularly get the question. Most of my students are not mathematics majoring, but are taking the class to fulfill a math requirement. I wonder if you find the question as frustrating as I do.
Most of the talk in courses is about content, but there is also talk about noncontent matters. We may try to create a sense of community in the course; we may try to motivate students, before or after exams; we may try to explain why we’re using certain teaching strategies; we may talk about how our discipline studies things; and we may offer professional advice. And even though talk about content is the focus of the course, most of us recognize that this other noncontent talk is an important part of student learning.
“I suspected that my students were not reading the assigned textbook and articles with the attention or consistency I had intended.”
A syllabus provides students with information about a course and its requirements, but it also conveys messages about the instructor’s personality and hints as to how the course will be conducted. It used to be that the instructor handed out the syllabus on the first day. Along with the syllabus, student impressions were formed by the instructor’s physical presence and conduct of that first class session. Now syllabi may be posted on course websites. Students meet the instructor after having reviewed the syllabus or, in the case of online courses, there may never be a face-to-face encounter. These circumstances make paying attention to the tone of the syllabus even more important. First impressions matter. They can influence how students respond throughout the course.
Research on teaching and learning is being done in virtually every discipline as well as in various education subfields. Unfortunately, the research in each of these domains tends to advance knowledge independently. Faculty researching the effects of clickers in biology courses are usually unaware of what studies of clicker use in psychology have uncovered. Recently, some well-known and highly respected researchers in cognitive psychology have been calling for work that integrates findings more broadly, and three psychologists answered with an interesting analysis of laboratory and applied research on collaborative testing. Their energies were focused on answering the following question: “When is collaborative testing most likely to enhance learning above and beyond individual testing?”
In-class activities can be a great way to foster student engagement in the classroom. Depending on the activity, the results can vary greatly. Sometimes they can fall flat, but every so often an activity manages to hold the students’ undivided attention.
Good teaching often relies on productive classroom discussion. However, many of us have experienced dynamics in which our discussions take a perilous turn and a palpable tension settles over the class. The precipitating comment may have offered a provocative perspective on an issue—maybe it rather aggressively challenged something someone said, or perhaps it smacked of racism, sexism,