Jacquelyn Raftery-Helmer, Kathryn Frazier, Nicole Rosa, Colleen Sullivan (Worcester State University)
The COVID-19 pandemic presented unrelenting challenges for faculty who, for the past two years, have worked tirelessly to help support their students in the context of their deteriorating academic performance, academic engagement and mental health (World Health Organization, 2020). As many institutions shifted to an online or remote learning format in the spring of 2020, a prominent challenge associated with that transition– and one that has persisted in the wake of prolonged remote learning, hybrid learning and the attempt to “return to normal” on many campuses– was the steep decline in students’ academic engagement and motivation (Gonzalez-Ramirez et al., 2021; Marler et al., 2021; Usher et al., 2021). While engagement and motivation have long been of interest to faculty (Reeve, 2012), the unprecedented external distractions and stressors presented by the pandemic have created new obstacles and challenges for both faculty and students.
Four instructors at Worcester State University, Kathryn Frazier, Jacquelyn Raftery-Helmer, Nicole Rosa, and Colleen Sullivan, surveyed students during the height of the pandemic to better understand what faculty could do to help students stay intrinsically motivated and engaged, despite the ongoing challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic created (Raftery-Helmer et al., 2020).
The researchers focused on intrinsic motivation---engaging in academic work because it is fun, interesting, enjoyable, and provides inherent satisfaction—because intrinsic motivation is the most robust type of motivation in that it comes from within. Intrinsic motivation has been associated with a range of positive academic outcomes (Ryan & Deci, 2000). For instance, Azila-Gbettor and colleagues (2021) found that students who were intrinsically motivated had lower levels of anxiety, higher perceptions of competence, and greater engagement in learning compared to students not intrinsically motivated. On the other hand, students with low intrinsic motivation have shown less interest in exploration and learning and a decreased commitment to their coursework. The Worcester State researchers found that the single strongest predictor of intrinsic motivation in class was whether or not students felt competent. This is consistent with a plethora of research showing that during times of stress (Grolnick et al., 2018), facilitating competence (Grolnick et al., 2014) is important for helping people feel in control of outcomes when everything else feels out of control, which may have been particularly important during the pandemic when many reported feeling little control over outside forces (Misamer, et al, 2021).
But how do instructors help students to feel competent in the classroom?
Here are several specific strategies, informed by this work, that were found to help students feel a sense of control and competence during this unprecedented time.
1. Set clear and consistent expectations
When expectations in the classroom are clear and consistently implemented, students have a better understanding of how their behavior is connected to classroom outcomes. Instructors might consider including specific language in their syllabus and course materials regarding their expectations for student participation, late work, and academic honesty. It can also be really helpful to provide students with a detailed course schedule that includes all upcoming readings and assignments. Having very clear policies and deadlines articulated upfront allows students to plan their academic behavior accordingly.
2. Provide predictable consequences when students don’t meet standards
It is really important for students to have a very clear sense of how points are earned in a class and under what circumstances they will experience grade deductions. One way of doing this could be to provide thorough rubrics articulating how students can earn (or lose!) assignment points. These rubrics should be as detailed as possible so that there is no guesswork for students trying to figure out how their work will be evaluated.
3. Provide continuous feedback
Students benefit from ongoing feedback in their classes. One way of doing this is to create a number of “low-stakes” assignments. These assignments create opportunities for students to examine their own understanding of essential course concepts and receive immediate feedback, without penalizing students for mistakes or errors they may make as part of the learning process. It can also be really helpful for students to have iterative writing assignments with built-in opportunities for specific, constructive, and thoughtful feedback. For instance, one way to do this would be to provide students feedback about their paper topic, prior to conducting a thorough literature review, and then specific (line by line, if needed!) feedback about how students have synthesized the literature before a final draft is due.
It may not be surprising to learn that many of the pedagogical techniques that worked so well to foster competence, and therefore intrinsic motivation, among students during a COVID-19 semester are those that tap into the principles of trauma-informed teaching. While trauma-informed pedagogy has traditionally been relevant for supporting students who enter college with a trauma history, psychologists and others have discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects as a sort of collective trauma, in reference to its toll on physical and emotional well-being. Trauma-informed pedagogies emphasize a number of principles, several of which mirror the goals of competence-supportive behaviors, including transparency, trustworthiness and empowerment (Harper & Neubauer, 2020).
Interestingly, Drs. Frazier, Raftery-Helmer, Rosa, and Sullivan found a different pattern of results when looking at student’s intrinsic motivation for college more generally– that is, what led students to associate internal value and enjoyment with their experience of, and intention to persist at, their college. Whether students felt connected to others, specifically faculty and other students in their class, was the only predictor of their general college intrinsic motivation. This finding was particularly meaningful in that it suggests that relationship building in the classroom is not taking away from students’ learning but is an essential ingredient for fostering student’s high-quality motivation. To create more connection in the classroom, instructors may consider doing the following:
1. Get to know your students
One of the best ways to help students feel connected is to take a real interest in your students. There are lots of ways to do this but one helpful strategy is to ask students on the first day of class why they enrolled in the course and what they were hoping to learn so that you may be able to incorporate their interests into the class. Brief surveys can provide interesting insight into your students’ lives in and out of the classroom that may help you to form connections throughout the semester. This also helps to send the message early on in the semester that you are interested in who your students are as individuals and see them as more than a name on a roster.
2. Make yourself available
While many faculty are required to hold office hours, it can be really helpful to frame for students what these office hours are for and to find creative ways to encourage students to attend. For instance, some faculty have had great success after sending personal “invitations” to office hours. One way to do this might be to reach out to students that appear to be struggling on assignments and ask them whether they would like to review material and discuss what resources they might need to succeed. It can be helpful to hold “themed” office hours. For instance, some instructors have advertised bonus office hours aimed at providing students with additional information about graduate school or employment avenues. Any way that you can connect with students and communicate to them that you are a resource and that you value them will pay dividends for their motivation!
3. Create opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction
While connection to faculty is important, so is creating a climate in which students feel connected to and valued by their peers. It’s important for faculty to create space for students to talk about their ideas, share their work, and engage in learning alongside and with others. Classroom activities based in active learning present students with the opportunity to test and apply their understanding of course material while also developing relationships with their classmates. Peer review assignments, structured group work, and other collaborative learning opportunities would also serve this goal well.
Despite the practical, emotional and physical challenges associated with pandemic learning, the shift to remote instruction, and the rippling consequences on students’ well-being, instructors’ behavior in the classroom remains a powerful catalyst for supporting student motivation. This work, and the pandemic, has highlighted the idea that faculty provide so much more than just content in our courses. Supporting instructors’ pedagogical development in a way that promotes competence support and relationship-building is one powerful way to enhance students’ experience and chance of success in the classroom, as well as their overall commitment to and value of their university.
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