Motivation in the Classroom

“Motivate derives from the Latin movere, meaning to move.”¹

Motivation in learning and teaching are essential to the learning and teaching process. Without proper motivation, how can we really know that we are providing students with the best environments and opportunities to learn?

Motivation Comes from Play

Play is very important for our survival. It has a place in biology just like sleep and dreams. In Stuart Brown’s video, Play is more than just fun, we discover precisely just that. Here we see that a hungry polar bear, with a fixed predatory gaze, approaches a tethered female husky in a play bow who is wagging her tail and they end up in a play ballet. The husky is actually bearing her throat to the polar bear which she is able to do because they are in a state of play.

Humans are designed to play throughout their whole lives and are the most playful of all of the species and consequently, this is what makes us the most adaptable. Brown encourages us to explore our past memories of play and build into our emotion in order to be more empowered by play. He feels if we do this, we may even change careers or just become happier more satisfied individuals.

In fact, Brown comes up with the equation Work + Play = Transformation. He encourages us all “to engage not in the work play differential where you set aside time to play but where our life becomes infused minute by minute and hour by hour with body, object, social, fantasy, and transformational kinds of play and I think you will have a better more empowered life.”

Motivation Comes from Online Learning

The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.  – Plutarch

In the video, What we’re learning with online education,” with Daphne Koller, it is shown how online learning can be a more motivational and effective way to learn. We may grade papers by using technology and since it is interactive, which is critical in learning, this proves to be an even better way to grade papers.

In this video, peer grading is also shown to be motivational and effective. Self-grades, surprisingly, were even better correlated with the teacher grades so this proves to be an effective grading and learning strategy. We see that a global community has formed using this type of online learning. It is interactive because even if a student posted a question at 3:00 in the morning, someone, somewhere else in the world was awake and working on the problem and answered the question. The turnaround time for getting an answer to your question was 22 minutes! This reward of getting a quick response is indeed great motivation!

College is a lecture-based approach and what needs to be added to that is an interactive approach so that the students will be motivated toward greater attendance, engagement and learning.  Online teaching gives the ability to interact actively with the material and be told when you are correct or incorrect immediately as this is essential to student learning.  It is suggested that less time should be spent lecturing at our students and “more time igniting their creativity, their imagination and problem-solving skills” by using active learning, that is, interacting with the students in the classroom. The structure of online courses guarantees student engagement and interaction.

A well-designed active learning strategy has the following characteristics:

  1. Every student is acting on the material either individually or with others.
  2. The timeframe is clear and relatively short.
  3. The goal of the activity is clear, meaningful, and uncomplicated.
  4. The task of the activity itself is clear, feasible, and uncomplicated.
  5. The nature of the end product—be it a list, an answer, a choice, or a structure—is described unambiguously.

Motivation Comes from Learning How to Think and How to Engage

In article, “Dialogic argumentation as a vehicle for developing young adolescents’ thinking” by Deanna Kuhn and Amanda Crowell, there is a focus on the idea of letting students have dialogue with each other about their ideas on a subject which is controversial and thought-provoking. Here we see how students are motivated to learn how to think and come up with ideas that may support their position and ideas that oppose their position. In the findings, it was revealed that this study motivated the students to develop different styles of argumentative reasoning.

Another strategy to motivate students to think critically and learn is by using what is known as project-based learning (PBL) found in student-centered classrooms as opposed to the traditional teacher-centered classroom.  

Research shows seven reasons why PBL motivates students to learn:

  1. Students gain autonomy and consequently a sense of independence and self-worth versus the apathy that results from sitting in a lecture-style classroom.
  2. Classrooms become collaborative communities in which the student feels included and needed and thereby draws the student in to ask questions and find answers.
  3. Students work on real-world projects allowing them to produce information and not just consume it.
  4. Instructors provide constructive feedback when they are genuine in their desire to help and are careful to avoid gender or racial bias.
  5. Students are encouraged to move, interact, collaborate, brainstorm and solve problems.
  6. Projects present the right amount of challenge sparking flexibility and initiative in the student.
  7. Students learn grit and perseverance and experience first-hand how failure is part of the process of learning and success.
Let's Get Grit bulletin board in Miller Hall at Pace, Pleasantville

Let’s Get Grit bulletin board in Miller Hall at Pace, Pleasantville


Motivation, like a good friend, may get us to accomplish a task even when we do not find inspiration on our own. Somehow, faculty have to encourage students to do what it is that they need to get done in order for this accomplishment.

In this blog, we have looked at several paradigms for motivating our students. We saw that humans are, by nature, playful and perform their best when they can operate within the parameters of their own creativity.  We also looked at how online learning is interactive and lends to rapid-responses, thereby improving learning over lecture-style learning.  We also saw how when students were posed with a conflicting social problem, and allowed to have dialogue with their peers, they were motivated to learn how to think critically about how best to present their arguments. Lastly, we give credence to the research found on project-based learning. Its effects on student motivation may not be ignored – students want to be engaged and active in a classroom. The engagement deepens understanding and allows the mind time to synthesize information in transformative ways.

Let us provide ways to be transformative.

¹Why Project-Based Learning Motivates Students

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Posted in Learning Model, Motivation, Online Learning
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