Adventures in Learning

Job N°1 – motivate learners

Learning is done by learners.

A simple, yet powerful fact.  You can’t make someone learn. They have to want it.  Making people be quiet in class, requiring people to be present, providing learning activities, resources, feedback and other elements – all mean NOTHING if the learner chooses not to learn.

If learners aren’t motivated to learn, it just won’t happen. Period.

You can’t make someone learn something – you really can’t teach someone something – they have to want to learn it. And if they want to learn, they will. – Daniel Greenberg (educator)

So as we are teaching our classes, we need to put in our heads that the 30 or 40 (or more) students in front of us are each unique individuals. That each may be more or less motivated to actually learn what is being taught.  And most importantly, that our job as teachers is not just to go through the motions of teaching…

« I did my class, and the students didn’t want to learn – that’s their problem not mine »…

WRONG. In fact, in many situations, motivating people to want to learn may be the only real job we as professors have to do. What is our job once we have developed motivation and pointed people to resources to learn on their own ?? – It might probably be to simply get out of the way.

If we as professors consider we are simply paid to teach X hours ..irrespective if learning happens or not… then the world of education is in deep trouble.

Job N°1 – Motivating.

So how can we motivate the learner to learn? Here are some basic ways professors and teachers can help increase learning motivation.  This list is not exhaustive and of course I’m open to others in the comments sections.

  • Build in time for sense making and motivation. Build ownership, eliciting questions, integrating leaner opinions, personalization…all take time. Make sure you allocate time for building motivation in the syllabus and lesson plan.
  • Make learning challenging and rewarding. « Today I’m going to help you learn something really easy » « Today I’m going to help you learn to do something that most people are unable to do. It will be tough – but – rewarding » Set high expectations of learners. However the fine balance between positive and negative stress needs to be managed (see the Yerkes-Dodson law of arousal). Learner self-efficacy needs to be managed.  Do students believe they have the skills and capability to achieve the goal?  Be careful of extrinsic participation based rewards as they can decrease interest in a n activity.
  • Make it personal. Personalization of learning is based on ideas that the learner can have input into the learning process. I have a previous post on personalization you can review.
  • Place learner in the role of co-owner and give them a « voice ». Learners individually or in groups can be placed in the role of co-designers.  Hackathon sessions at start of a learning session can help learner provide input and participate.  Seek out their input when designing and delivering a course.  What case should we study? How are learning teams defined? Student influence, responsibility an decision making role are linked to motivation.
  • Underscore the value of mistakes and failures. So much learning happens through trial and error.
  • Develop self efficacy. Step by step. Scaffolded learning methods allow the learner to prove to him/herself his/her abilities. Take time to review the pre-requisites and show learners that they have already acquired some key knowledge or skills. (See Gagnés 9 events)
  • Help learners see link to the « real world » of what they are doing. How it will impact their future career opportunities. What skills are developed in the course and how those skills are valued today in the job market (link course objectives to key trends in the labor market…take a look at O*Net to see which skills and occupations are increasingly demanded).
  • Give feedback and proof of progress

For more, take a look at  « The Motivated Brain » by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt


Building and managing motivation to learn is an essential responsibility of teachers and professors. Using some basic techniques of integrating student voice, building self efficacy and using appropriate support structures, we can help build higher levels of motivation and learning.

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