Thursday, November 4, 2010

What's Your Motivation?

Sure, my title is an acting question--I remember the times in college, when even actors with no lines had to figure out their motivation as we worked on a play. The truth is, though, we are all motivated differently, and my students show varied kinds of motivations, some of which I share.

Now, I do have a few students who lack motivation. I'll admit that right off. I just don't see these students very often, since they aren't motivated enough to come to class (or even motivated enough to drop the class so that they don't fail it). All the rest of my students are inspired by some form of motivation:

1. Judgment

This particular motivator is people-centered. Either students go to class because they know their mom will wonder why they are at home when class is happening (and they don't want to upset her) or they want to get good grades so the parents (or girlfriend, etc.) are proud (instead of disappointed), or they may even fear what their teacher thinks of them. I was a member of the latter, although I do understand that what a stranger thinks shouldn't really matter. The point is that these people are working hard, not because they really think it's important, but because other people do, and they want to be judged favorably by those people.

2. Competition

I can't say this is a motivating factor for me--the Navajo blood in me is too strong--but it certainly is for my students. Some of them want to know what everybody else's grade is--tests, quizzes, papers, everything. Envy is the name of the game here. These students might not care that much about what grade they receive, as long as it's the best grade I dish out. However, since I dislike this particular tendency, I never tell them anything. (Other students' grades are none of their damn business.)

3. Grade

For these students, the grade is a sign of whether or not they will make it to heaven. An "A" is average for these people (although a "C" is supposed to be the average), and anything less means they failed. Call them overachievers--I know I do--or perfectionists--I call them that, too--but they are also very hard workers, for they aren't competing against other students in class but against the perfection they imagine themselves capable of. The only problem with this motivation is that it causes students unnecessary stress, and it's stress on the GRADE, not on the LEARNING. Which leads to the (next to) last motivation.

4. Desire to Learn

This is my favorite, but it's not that common. Most students are in my classes because they have to be. They need so many English credits to get an associates or earn their certificate in welding, so they enroll because they have to. But the rare student comes in, takes a course, and then returns for another one which he doesn't need, just because the course will teach him something. I knew a class once--taught by an adjunct instructor--that was told three weeks before the end of the class that, to give them a break, the teacher was canceling the last few weeks and dropping the final research project. They walked, en masse, straight out of her classroom and to the Dean's office to report her. They were furious that she had robbed them of three weeks of learning. Such an event is rare, yet I do see small signs of this nearly every day, when students express frustration that they get a good grade in some class yet feel like the course itself didn't cover anything important. One student recently commented on a religion course, saying, "You know, I took the class because I wanted to learn about different religions--because it interested me--and I haven't learned anything. It's a complete waste of time."

Now I'm looking over at my little NaNoWriMo calendar, and I am glad I posted in my sidebar. I was unable to write on the novel until late last night, but seeing a red mark on day three was highly motivating. Is it because that calendar is public, and all of you might see it? Nope. Is it because my mom might check out the page? Nope. Am I competing with another NoWri? Nope. Is there a grade involved? Nope.

My drive comes from another source, one I haven't discussed, but one that drives nearly all of us, except for those rare students who never show up for class. It isn't what others think of us, but what we think of ourselves that matters most. I don't want to see my calendar filled with red marks. I care about what I think. That is my ultimate motivation.


  1. Totally unrelated, (sorta) but I got the rare treat of watching the Goth tutor Stretch on how to write an essay yesterday. Wow. That kid can not only write, but knows WHY he does what he does. I think he has a future.

    Or he'll wait tables and starve. Either way.

  2. I never saw the inside of a collage class until I was 46 (56 now), loved it, loved the perspectives of them who would speak up (both mature and immature outlooks) and loved the discussion of the finer points of whatever the class was.

    Loved the English classes best of all took every one they offered. To me it was like reliving the 5 years I worked in a major art museum. Not so much learning new things for me but why the things I was doing already worked and names for them.

    To me the worst were the GPA grabbers. Them that worried more about the grade than the information. I loved going head to head with them. In one scholarship competition open to all at the school I was awarded both scholarships for 2k worth of free dough. I didn't brag about it but my little ol' 3.6 beat out all of their 4.2's.

    Then I broke my neck and never got to use the damn money. Someone did though so that was cool.

    So now what is my motivation?

    I can read books I like by authors I never would have touched (mainly the Eastern European of the 19th century) before I spent that 1.5 years in school and understand them and their underlying theme of comparison.

    I should finish the last 23 credits I need for an AA degree but I don't really see the point now that I have been taught how to learn and pretty much am self motivated besides my siblings all have advanced degrees and it would give them one less thing to think ill of me for. hahahahahaha

    Your motivation for 50k words in 30 days? *shrug* You needed a change of pace anyway Shakes.

  3. I think, and this is just my opinion, that motivations are often more complex, a combination of several factors. Grades, for example, are often driven, at least in part, by the view by others.

    I'm driven to excel and I compete against myself. When I was in college, that included good grades, but wasn't limited to it. I wanted to do the best I could do and, in those classes where I worked my tail off, but didn't get an A, well, I was far more proud of that then classes where I learned little, no matter how easy the A.

    Since I've always loved learning (and have yet to stop), I don't know if that's motivation. If I'd just been motivated by a love of learning, I would never have left the library in college, learning eclectically all the things that interest me. Now, I just spend spare moments trolling Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Astronautica.

    I probably learned more useful information studying the other students and the interactions of those around me than all my classes combined.

    But I can think of twenty different factors, having to do with my own personality, my history, the way I grew up, different teachers, etc. that influence the way I'm motivated. Self-respect is probably at the top of the list, but it's a list. I wonder how many of us have complex motivations or if it's just one of my many weirdnesses.

  4. The Mother, I waited tables, and, actually, it was a lot of fun. I doubt that his waiting tables will be a permanent gig, though... it wasn't for me.

    Walking Man, you know I teach college, but I'm not going to say you should finish your degree. You sound the like the kind of person who will get far more out of a class than those in search of a grade or credit only. I audited a bunch of classes while a graduate student, just because I wanted to be in there and experience something fascinating. Grades were a bigger motivator for me in undergrad, but by the time I reached my masters level, I wanted to learn, and nothing upset me more than a prof who not only wasn't teaching anything, but intentionally tried to prevent my learning something beyond the trivial crap he taught. I think you'd like my class... no lecturing from my pulpit. I tend to teach by the Socratic method, with LOTS and LOTS of questions... letting you decide much of what you do for yourself. Sounds like you'd do that without my encouragement.

    Stephanie, I think you're right... and I also believe students learn from each other, and a couple of perceptive, involved students can work wonders for the rest of a class. My list of motivations is really limited by the setting I'm discussing, and while many hold several of these motivations at once (and might connect them), they are still often distinct. Some people see the grade as a sign to others of their worth, but for some the grade is a sign that they learned something. It is only as they move through college that they realize that teachers often give grades, and a great grade may have no bearing on whether they learned anything. That said, I am a participant in the life-long school of learning. College didn't end that for me, and I will forever be exploring new ideas and new information, just as you do.