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Dealing with Motivation:

as a classroom issue


It is well known that horses can be easily led to water, but getting the creatures to drink is an entirely different proposition. In the same way, students may be presented with well-planned syllabuses and teaching materials in a well-equipped classroom, but somehow the desire to learn, to take what is on offer, is absent. This lack of ‘thirst’ for the course is usually referred to as a lack of motivation. This paper looks at how the problem of lack of motivation amongst some of the Foundation Year students at the German University of Technology in Oman (GU Tech) was tackled using a variety of approaches. 


Motivation
Researchers in the fields of educational psychology (Dornyei, 2001) and, more specifically, language learning (Gardner, 1985) have shown that there are many different sources of motivation which affect learning. In general there are ‘more than twenty internationally recognised theories of motivation’ (Wlodkowski, 1986) including social motivation theory, goal setting theory and self-determination theory. Each of these theories uses different approaches, definitions and terminology which reflect the state of confusion and disagreement within the field. 

In educational circles, where the self-determination theory is dominant, it has been customary to divide motivation into intrinsic and extrinsic sources. Intrinsic motivation, i.e. doing something because the learner wants to, is felt to prove more successful in learning than extrinsic motivation. On the other hand, some researchers (Reiss, 2005) argue that there is such a diverse range of extrinsic motivations that intrinsic motivation itself does not exist. In the language learning context, Gardner argues that the desire to integrate with a language community is the most powerful source of motivation for second language learners. 

In an educational context, specifically in a university, we must assume that most university students, like those at GU Tech, are extrinsically motivated. That is to say they are motivated either through the prospect of gaining ‘reward’, (in the form of praise, exam success, improved career prospects, etc.), or through ‘punishment’, (poor grades, the disapproval of lecturers or parents, exam failure, etc.) rather than through intrinsic motivation.  In other words we conclude, sadly one might say, that the learner is not taking a course for the inherent interest and pleasure of the subject material.  
 
GU Tech’s Students
Students entering the foundation programme at GU Tech are mainly Omani students coming from a variety of educational backgrounds. A number studied at English medium private schools, mainly located in Muscat, while others are government sponsored
students selected from government schools throughout Oman. In the foundation year programme students study Academic English, Mathematics, Information Technology and Creative Design. Chemistry, Physics and Economics are also offered as options depending on the students’ majors. On successful completion of the foundation year students would then progress to their BSc programmes. Students have up to 30 hours a week of classroom or laboratory instruction. Assessment is carried out by coursework and examination.

Identifying the issue
During the first semester of what was GU Tech’s first year of operation, lack of motivation was evident with a number of students. This lack of motivation manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, there was non-participation in classroom activities, failure to complete assignments, poor attendance and sometimes disruptive behaviour in the classroom.  

The issue of motivation was tackled early on at a number of different levels within the university. Lecturers, using a reflective approach to their teaching, would make changes to teaching style as well as course content in order to engage the less motivated students. Informally, lecturers would discuss individual ‘problem students’ with their peers, as well as comparing the teaching methods and technology that they used. At the institutional level the academic staff held regular meetings to discuss individual student performances and to identify under-achievers. 
 
Dealing with the issue
In order to find out how individual lecturers coped with student motivation during the first year a questionnaire was distributed to all of the foundation year lecturers at the end of the academic year (Appendix). Questions were directed towards the following topics, or rather ‘stages’ in the process of reacting to classroom events.

It had become clear through informal discussions throughout the year that this was sequence through which lecturers had progressed as they dealt with motivational problems. In essence, lecturers were following a reflective approach to learning and teaching issues arising in the classroom, as outlined by Richards (1991) and others. This can be summarised as: event, reflection, response, and evaluation. It is similar in approach to the ADRI model – approach, deployment, results, improvement.

The results of the questionnaire can be summarised as follows: 

1. All lecturers had noticed a lack of motivation amongst some individual learners and sections of classes during the course and had taken steps to tackle the problem. 
2. All lecturers discussed motivational and course related issues with their students, either individually or as a group in order to gain feedback.
3. Most lecturers found that the lecturing method of imparting information did not work well. Students worked best in small groups collaborating on tasks or solving problems.
4. The use of technology generally improved student motivation. For example, students enjoyed working on their laptops (which are issued to all foundation programme students).
5. One or two lecturers, however, found that laptops could be a distraction and restricted their use in the classroom. Another lecturer found that power point presentations of mathematical problems did not work as effectively as the whiteboard when it came to involving students in the solution to the problem.
6. Lecturers implemented changes to course content and to classroom teaching materials in order to improve individual and class interest.

At the institutional level regular weekly meetings were held to discuss the progress of individual students. Where there was agreement among the lecturers that a particular student was not progressing well – either due to lack of motivation or lack of ability - it was recommended that the student should have a meeting with his or her mentor to discuss the situation as a first step. As a follow up, the student would be asked to complete a ‘learning contract’. 

The aim of the learning contract was for the student, with the help of his or her mentor, to identify problems in performance and/or behaviour and to agree on steps that would be taken to rectify the situation - within a specified period of time. If there was no marked improvement in performance, then parents would be contacted and invited to attend a meeting with the student’s lecturers at which the student would be present.

A further tool was available for the university and the lecturers, that of on-line (and anonymous) student evaluation of courses. This however came towards the end of the academic year and had no bearing on change during the year. It may, however, be of benefit in planning future courses.

Effects on motivation levels
Using this combination of approaches, at both the classroom and institutional levels, changes were observed in student motivation. Some students showed a marked improvement in attitude and performance. Others, particularly after the drawing up of learning contracts, showed temporary improvement which tended to fade after a few weeks. A second learning contract or the involvement of parents then took place. A few students, however, showed little noticeable improvement. It became clear that one or two of these students had personal or family problems which were beyond the reach of the lecturers or the university’s counselling services. 
Lecturers reported that the changes they had made to course content, classroom management, teaching styles, etc. had worked well in most cases. They remarked that they would institute these changes in the new academic year but at the same time they would monitor the success in the light of the reaction of the new students. 

Conclusions
It was found, as expected, that most students were not intrinsically motivated by the courses they were studying. They were clearly extrinsically motivated and responded best to ‘rewards’ and ‘punishment’ (carrots and sticks). They sought immediate rewards in the form of praise, good grades, etc. and eventual rewards such as a degree and good job prospects. The university tried to emphasise the rewards offered by success by organising a number of events such as trips to Germany, visits to businesses and industries in Oman, and talks by successful Omani ‘role models’ ‘Punishment’, on the other hand, was perceived to be poor assignment and quiz scores, the disapproval of lecturers or parents and the general fear of failure in examinations. Indeed, as the final exams approached students naturally adopted a more positive attitude to their work. Learning contracts and meetings with parents, though not necessarily intended as such, also acted as a form of ‘punishment’.

From the experience of the first year it was found that motivational issues with students were best tackled using a combination of different approaches. It was also concluded that different students respond to different stimuli. Another important lesson was the need for university lecturers to bear in mind that they can only do so much to improve motivation. The key to motivation lies within the students themselves and sometimes the answers to a student’s particular problems are outside the expertise or the influence of the lecturer. 

References


 
Appendix: 
 
Questionnaire – Student Motivation
 
Please reply freely to these questions based on your experience at GUtech over the academic year 2007/8. Add your own comments where useful.
 
1. How in general would you rate student motivation on a scale of 10 (high) to 0?  ___

Comments: ____________________________________________________________

2. Was motivation...
a) a problem with one or two isolated students in a class?
b) a problem with sections of a class?
c) a problem with classes in general?
d) other situation (please explain)

Comments: ___________________________________________________________

3. What activities seemed to de-motivate students most?

Comments: ___________________________________________________________

4. What activities seemed to motivate students most?

Comments: ___________________________________________________________

5. Did you discuss motivation either directly or indirectly with classes to find out what would interest or motivate them?

Comments:  _________________________________________________________

6. As a result of your observations (and/or discussions) what changes (if any) did you make during the first and second semesters to try to motivate students? Describe any changes in:

a) teaching style _____________________________________________________

b) classroom management (arrangement of desks, timing of breaks, etc) ______________

c) materials used /topics covered ________________________________________

d) use of technology  _________________________________________________

e) other changes  ____________________________________________________


7. What was the effect of these changes: a) on individual students, b) on the class’s attitude as a whole?

Comments:  ________________________________________________________

8. Did you make further changes as a result of this feedback?

Comments:  ________________________________________________________

9. Did you discuss student motivation with your colleagues?

Comments:  ________________________________________________________

10. How useful did you find ‘learning contracts? Did they help with the motivation of individual students?

Comment:  ________________________________________________________

11.  Did you find the formal evaluation questionnaires that students completed useful with regard to motivation?

Comment:  ________________________________________________________

12. In view of this year’s experience briefly describe any changes will you be making in your approach to your classes next semester.

Comment:  ________________________________________________________