David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Will Students Actually Believe They Can Do This Assignment?

Full vitae students new motivation

Image: iStock

No matter how much students value your course, or how supportive your classroom environment, they won’t be motivated to do the work if they don’t think they can succeed at it. And of course the solution is not about making things easy for them.

As a new academic year gets underway, I’ve been thinking a lot about student motivation. Specifically I’ve been rereading a 2010 book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, which offers a compelling chapter on the three main pillars that underlie student motivation.

I wrote last month about the first pillar: value. That is, how to get students to value the course goals you’ve created and actually want to do the work. Now let me turn to the second one: "expectancies" — jargon for students’ expectation that they can succeed on an assignment and achieve a given goal. (Stay tuned for a column on the third pillar: creating a supportive classroom environment.)

The more students feel that a goal is achievable, the more likely they will be motivated to pursue it. How Learning Works describes two kinds of expectancies, and it’s worth understanding the distinctions between them. Briefly:

  • Outcome expectancies. Here the student is asking: If I do this assignment, how likely is it that I will learn what you say I’m supposed to learn? That is to say: Do students think the assignments and course plans we have devised are a path that leads to the course goals? Does that path you’ve cleared lead where they’re expecting it to go?
  • Efficacy expectancies. This is the extent to which students believe they are capable of achieving the goal. They have to believe success is possible, or else why bother? For example, to return to a metaphor I offered in my previous column, I’m pretty confident that I know the necessary steps to become a professional baseball player. First, have a boatload of natural talent. Then put in hours and hours of hard work on the field and in the gym. And finally, have a lot of luck along the way. But that knowledge doesn’t really help, given that I don’t have the slightest confidence that I’m able to carry out any of those steps. My almost nonexistent efficacy expectation means my motivation to pursue a baseball career remains low.

So we need to convince students that doing things our way — for example, studying for and taking a quiz every week — will lead them to significant learning and a better grade. But we also have to convince students it’s worth trying to ace those quizzes. If the quizzes have very little to do with the course’s learning goals, or if the quizzes count for very little of students’ final grade, they won’t see the point of trying too hard on them. Likewise, if the quizzes are extremely difficult, or require hours upon hours of studying every week just to pass, many students will lose motivation quickly.

What do they expect to learn? If you want students to be motivated, first look closely at what you’re asking them to do. Are the specific assignments on your syllabus there because "that’s how I’ve always done it"? Or does the work you are making students do lead to clear and specific learning goals?

The principles of backward design can help here. Think clearly about your overall goals for the course. Identify a handful of key learning outcomes. Then work backward to figure out what would count as evidence that your students had achieved those outcomes. Then design the assignments and other elements of the course to help students toward the evidence and goals.

Each aspect of your course — each task you ask students to complete — should be a part of the path to at least one of your learning outcomes.

"Dog fooding" your course assignments — that is, actually doing them yourself — is another way to make sure that the tasks match the goal. Putting yourself in their shoes, going through each step of the assignment, can be an eye-opening experience for a teacher. It may help you tweak your assignments to make sure you’re leading students down the right path. If you’re not willing to go to such lengths, having a colleague take a look at your assignments and give you feedback on how you’ve designed them can help as well.

Once you are confident that the work you’re asking students to do is appropriate to the course’s goals, make that clear to students. Transparency is a great boon to teaching. There’s very little benefit to hiding your reasons for your pedagogical choices. At every turn, explain to students why you’re asking them to carry out specific tasks. Why do you want them to do this reading? Why are you asking them to get into groups for this activity? Why did you design the exam the way you did? If students don’t see the links between the work they have to do and the learning they conceivably want to achieve, they won’t be as motivated to do that work.

Likewise, be as transparent as possible about how you assess students. If they have no idea what you’re looking for — no concept of what separates an A paper from a B paper, or a C paper, for example — they’ll be less confident in their capacity to succeed, and consequently less motivated to try.

How to convince students they can succeed. That involves both: (a) making sure your course is set at the appropriate level of difficulty and (b) convincing students of their capability. I give a low-stakes writing assignment early on to understand the writing levels of each student. I can see, pretty easily, whether a number of students struggle with basic grammar, or with coherent paragraphs, or even with logical thinking. Then I adjust my course to respond to what I think they are capable of achieving.

Even within an introductory rhetoric course like the one I teach, different groups of students require different levels of difficulty. Whether or not you begin with a similar writing diagnostic, it’s important to be responsive to students throughout the semester. If half of them fail the first test, you probably need to adjust your expectations for what they are capable of achieving. Without such adjustments, you’ll have some students inferring that no amount of effort will lead to their passing the course.

Key to convincing students that they are able to succeed — according to How Learning Works — is to make sure they have "early success opportunities." I try to do that in the first half of my courses with low-stakes, often ungraded assignments. I want to give students a chance to learn the ropes of the course, to practice the skills I’m hoping they’ll develop further, before I start to assess them too stringently. The two major assignments toward the end of my course usually have significantly more weight in the final grade calculations than the first two assignments.

If you can ease students into the work you’re asking them to do, with some early victories they can build on, they will gain confidence that they can do well in the rest of the class even as the demands on them grow.

Finally, to succeed at any difficult task, give students a number of opportunities throughout the semester for self-correction — or as it’s known in learning theory, metacognitive reflection. Such opportunities allow students to monitor and adjust their behavior, so they can more clearly see what it will take to achieve their goals.

You can find plenty of ideas out there to encourage metacognitive thinking, but I’m particularly fond of "exam wrappers," — an idea usually attributed to Marsha Lovett, one of the authors of How Learning Works. Exam wrappers are questionnaires handed out to students when you hand back their graded exam or assignment. The handout asks questions about their preparation for, and performance on, the exam. It asks them to reflect on what they did and think about how their approach led to the results.

That moment — when you give feedback — is the perfect time to ask them to consider what they will do differently going forward. Metacognition can give students the tools to adjust their approach as they go, which can in turn increase their confidence in their capability to succeed.

Next up: classroom environment. In the meantime, look closely at what you’re asking students to do this term. Are you doing enough to make sure that they believe they can succeed? If your students don’t have a realistic expectation of success, why would they be motivated to try?

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