Fostering Intrinsic Motivation In Introductory Classes

Contributed by Federica Bocchi, Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy of Science

(5-minute read)

Fostering students’ motivation to learn is complicated in intro classes, where the demographic is usually highly heterogeneous. If you struggle to figure out how to motivate your students, this post is for you! 

Let us start from the basics. Pedagogical literature distinguishes two types of motivation: intrinsic and instrumental. Instrumental motivation refers to the extrinsic reasons a student might have to do well and stay engaged in any classroom: rewards, grades, or the perspective of completing HUB credits. Although extrinsic motivation is a powerful tool that a learner can rely on, educators believe that this is rarely enough for the long-term retention of information or methodological skills (Goldman et al. 2016). Accordingly, as instructors, we should rely on more than this form of motivation in our classes. Intrinsic (or inner) motivation is the reason that drives students, such as passion and curiosity. To be an excellent teacher, we should be able to foster our students’ intrinsic motivation and have them appreciate the subject we teach even if it doesn’t have evident extrinsic rewards

Fostering intrinsic motivation is easier said than done, you might think. Fortunately, we can rely on extensive literature that provides us with structural strategies (in syllabus design) and quick steps that we can undertake with little effort. Let us focus on the latter. 

In Small Teaching, educator and writer James Lang argues that instructors can foster intrinsic motivation in introductory courses by calling on the power of emotions, both positive and negative. According to Lang and other educators such as Sarah Cavanaugh and Benedict Carey, emotions work in class in three ways.

First, instructors can nurture students’ motivation by trying to keep their emotional state high, for example, by telling motivating stories. Suppose you are teaching history, art, or literature, for example. In that case, you can narrate episodes from the life of the people included in the syllabus, paying particular attention to their reasons for acting/painting/writing in a specific way. Students might be more prone to self-identify with distant figures and might spark their interest, accomplishing the first positive task of emotions. If you are teaching ethics, evolutionary biology, or astronomy, you can focus on iconic debates and disagreements that led to the development of a consensus. You can help students understand the evidence brought about by the various parties in the dispute and have them appreciate how issues that are settled today have been highly disputed in the past. For any subject, you can also create a subjective narration of your experience, which tracks your personal development in your field. You might add personal details to your narrative, situating yourself as an 18-year-old to nurture a sense of identification with your students. This latter example crosscuts various fields from math to finance and encourages you to think about yourself retrospectively as an undergrad.

A second way to appeal to emotion is by infusing the learning process with a sense of purpose, such as that learning can shape the world into a better place. Let me report my personal experience here. During the 2022 Summer, I taught an Intro to Environmental Ethics class from 6 to 8:30 pm (!) 3 times (!) a week. I decided to elicit my students’ emotions by showing them that they can make a difference if they learn to reason ethically and make moral decisions in light of an informed environmental conscience. Students developed daily reflections on their commitment to the environment and future generations to accomplish this goal and shared them in a class magazine. It was been a gratifying exercise!

The third strategy to sparkle students’ motivation is fostering a sense of belonging to the learning community (Lang 2016, p.108-110). According to various studies, the social aspects of learning as a group are especially valuable (see, for example, Zimmerman’s 2001 article). A quick tip to attain this sense of community can be to get to class 5-10 minutes early and engage in casual conversation with the students. You can ask them about their majors, their semester schedule, or if they enjoyed the weekend… you can even dare make connections to your class topics!

Finally, I believe the professor’s enthusiasm for the lecture material is key in eliciting students’ interest. Enthusiasm is not always a spontaneous trait, nor is it easy to implement in every lecture. But we can do something about it. We can train ourselves to add a little more zeal than we would normally do every day, for example, thinking that enthusiasm is an essential feature of our teaching persona. Or we can adjust the readings or syllabi towards topics we care about, having our students read our articles or posts. 

I hope I have convinced you of how vital fostering intrinsic motivation is. Feel free to contact me at fbocchi@bu.edu if you would like me to discuss specific pedagogical issues, and I’ll tailor my next posts based on your needs. Make sure you follow my future posts on how to sparkle interest in the class material using technology!