Can Your Syllabus Improve Student Motivation?

Stephanie J. Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, stephanie@caperteam.com 

It seems reasonable to assume that students with high motivation have a better chance to do well in your courses than students who are unmotivated—or worse, negatively motivated. This begs the question of how we might enhance our students’ motivation.

Before we get to this, we should consider whether or not it is our responsibility as professors to even acknowledge student motivation at all. By this I mean, isn’t it sufficient that students pay their tuition to come and sit in our classes, and shouldn’t this be motivation enough all on its own? I don’t have a solid answer to this, but what I do know is that over the years, I’ve changed my philosophical perspective that it is my job to help students learn how to learn rather than cleverly download facts into their brains. The truth is that five years from now, I want them to think astronomy is “cool” more than I want them to know the numerical diameter of Saturn. That means that the astronomy class needs to be a transformative experience for them—which isn’t the same thing as just having a great time. Its about them being different as a human being because they’ve taken astronomy, and I want that different to be a positive transformation, rather than a negative one. Taken together, I think it is important that we pay attention to enhancing our students’ motivation, if for no other reason than to not engender negative motivation about learning astronomy.

Stephanie Slater discusses motivation theory at MIT

Perhaps surprisingly, your course syllabus is the most tangible means by which you can quickly establish a positive “course climate.” This is important because, if you’ve read your faculty evaluation forms from previous semesters, you might have noticed that there are usually several items that specifically attend to the nature of the “course climate” or “classroom environment” you established. For instance:

  • “The instructor established and maintained a respectful and welcoming learning environment from the first day of class”
  • “The instructor adapted teaching methods and materials to address my individual learning style and abilities”
  • “The instructor´s direction in this course is free from attitudes/actions demeaning to women and minorities.”
  • “This instructor seems aware of my needs, abilities, and interests.”

These are not items on which you desire a low score, yet I suspect, that these are the items that angry students will use to tank you at the end of the term. So what  about getting good marks here, and as a side note, actually creating a better classroom climate?

One framework of classroom environments characterizes classrooms along a continuous spectrum that looks something like this:

<—explicitly marginalizing—implicitly marginalizing—implicitly centralizing—explicitly centralizing—>

As you might guess, you do not want to be on the far left side of this spectrum if you want to have positive teaching evaluations.

Unfortunately, most courses are characterized as “implicitly marginalizing.” An implicitly marginalizing class is one that “excludes certain groups of people, but in subtle and indirect ways.” To put this to use, the modern version of “certain groups of people” is no longer women and minorities. It’s now non-traditional students:

  • students who go to school part time and work part or full time
  • students with children at home, minority and immigrant students who are culturally bound to be caretakers for their larger family group
  • English language learners, etc.

This is true for both high school and college settings.

To be conservative, we should probably all assume “implicitly marginalizing” to be our current status, and we should all be looking for ways to move to the right side of the spectrum. If you are already to the right side of the spectrum, this perspective won’t hurt you. Erring in the other direction will.

So, what does classroom environment have to do with cell phones, laptops and your end-of-term scores? There are two pieces here. The first is “motivation,” and the second has to do with “tone.”

MOTIVATION: We sometimes think that “motivation” is a pretty vague thing, but there are people who have thought a lot about it and have broken it down into something that you can chew on. One way to think about student motivation is that it is a mixture of three things:

A. Motivation is about “Value”: Does this class help me meet my goals? Which may be related to intrinsic value of education and the material, but it’s probably not. It has more to do with meeting my social goals, my career goals, etc.

Perhaps the fastest way to reduce the “value” a student sees in your class, is to put your class in conflict with things that the student values more. Like their job, their kids or their family. If I need my cell phone to stay in touch with my child’s caregiver, and you tell me I can’t have my cell phone out to text that caregiver, you have now put us into conflict.

Does this mean that students will sometimes multitask? Yes. And that’s not great. But it would be far worse to set up a system in which we are at odds, and I’m constantly worried about my other obligations. Because if you make me stressed out and anxious about these other things, my amygdala fires and shuts down my hippocampus, and I can neither access nor store memories..,But the neurobiology thing is a whole other thing.

To keep it simple, the syllabus can either show the students a pathway by which they can meet their most cherished goals, or it can show them that the two are in conflict. Conflict = bad evaluations.

B. Motivation is about “self-efficacy.” Can I do this thing that I have to do for this class?

Can we think of ways in which students might use devices like cell phones and laptops, in order to help them get through the class. Yep. Do you want to be the instructor who tries to control student behavior by removing laptops, and inadvertently removes an important educational tool for some students. Nobody does, but we often focus on control so much that we forget to think about whether or not we’re hindering someone unnecessarily.

C. Motivation is about “Perceiving a Supportive Environment”. Does the student perceive that the instructor is creating an environment that will help them be successful, or does the student think things like:

  • “This instructor does not understand my commitment to my family,”
  • “This instructor does not understand that I have to be able to text my boss if I want to keep my job—-this instructor only wants to teach the rich who can afford to go to school full time.”
  • “This instructor doesn’t want me to succeed because she says that I can’t come into class 5 minutes late…but sometimes the bus is late getting me to campus….”

So the question is, for the non-traditional student, does your syllabus increase their sense of value in your class, make them believe that they can use tools to succeed, and does it make them believe that you are supporting them in the difficult task of juggling their education and their other commitments?

It’s funny to think that something so small as a cell phone/laptop or late admittance policy can have such big whammy on student motivation, but it can clearly hit all three pieces of student motivation if handled badly. The research, shows it to be true: replicated, over decades of studies on students in many different types of courses.

BUT, you might say, what can I do to reduce the non-necessary use of cell phones and the off-task use of laptops? Can I put anything in my syllabus? This brings us to:

TONE: Ishiyama and Hartlaub (2002) studied how the tone of a syllabus affects course climate. They found that “students are less likely to seek help from an instructor who worded policies in punitive language.” Given that “instructor accessibility” is an important factor on course evaluations, you don’t want students feeling that way. Sure you have office hours, but if they don’t feel like they can approach you, it doesn’t matter: you are perceived to be unapproachable. In other words, the specific tone (intentional or unconscious) can significantly bring down your instructor accessibility score.

Interestingly enough, instructors could state the exact same policy, but do so in rewarding language, and get a completely different response. In 1985, Rubin described instructors who put policies in boldface block letters, or who promised harsh punishments as “scolders.” Students don’t like scolders. Going back to what was said earlier about motivation, a “scolder” is not perceived to provide a supportive environment. Scolder = low evaluations.

–> PLEASE BE ON TIME     vs      Please, be on time.

So if you have to have some policy in your syllabus about lateness, phones, laptops, tablets, or whatever the current “control fetish” might be, don’t put it in bold face. Don’t pronounce sever punishments. Don’t create punishments that embarrass students. In other words, don’t act like a Big Bad Guy.

Because, the research has verified that students don’t like instructors who create policies that are counterproductive to their motivation, and who state those policies in a dictatorial manner.

A great book to read on all of this is the Ambrose et. al. book: “How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.” It’s extremely useful, and contains references for all of the research that has gone into everything that I’ve repackaged here.

This means that a professor who is serious about improving their course learning environment will ask themselves some hard questions, including:

— >  What policies do I enact that might make students feel demeaned, disenfranchised, or disabled from meeting their out-of-class commitments?

— >  How can I change the wording on just one thing in my syllabus, to make it seem more hospitable for my students?

Perhaps some specific examples will help. Over the years of helping professors improve their teaching evaluations, we’ve discovered some pretty “inhospitable” syllabi.


Here are some examples definitely worth considering changing:

ONE–

  • OLD: You must have a scientific calculator for this class that can handle exponential notation.
  • POSSIBLE NEW WORDING: Although not required every day, a calculator will sometimes be helpful in completing the homework for this class. Any inexpensive one will do just fine, as long as it is labeled “scientific” and one can be purchased for about $12.

TWO–

  • OLD: Class attendance is REQUIRED!! Class attendance will be record five times throughout the semester – unannounced – and attendance is worth 10% of your grade.
  • POSSIBLE NEW WORDING: Students who regularly attend class almost always earn better grades and learn more astronomy than students who miss class. Although sometimes missing a class is unavoidable, our class time is specifically designed around collaborative group learning activities that will help you score better on exams. Although you can sometimes do these assignments on your own, talking through these ideas with another student and with the support of your professor will enhance your learning and your grade. Occasionally, these learning tasks will be collected and participation points will be awarded to add to your grade.

THREE–

  • OLD: Office hours will not be held within 24 hours of the exam.
  • POSSIBLE NEW WORDING: I will hold extra office hours during the week leading up to the exam and hold an open question-and-answer session at 4pm two days before the exam–bring snacks to share with classmates!

FOUR–

  • OLD: Class time is important and will always start on time. Do not be late or leave early.
  • POSSIBLE NEW WORDING: I promise to start and end class on time. I would appreciate it if you did too.

Positive course learning environments can help keep students motivation high in your astronomy class, whereas negative environments too often lead to student failure and dissatisfaction on everyone’s part. Motivation might seem like a difficult nut to crack, but as a first step, we suggest taking a look at your syllabus, or have a critical friend look at your syllabus. You might find that this first step opens up all sorts of doors to improving student motivation and nurturing a more positive class climate.

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2 Comments

Filed under ASTRO 101

2 responses to “Can Your Syllabus Improve Student Motivation?

  1. Pingback: 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations: An Introduction | CAPER Astronomy Faculty Lounge

  2. Pingback: Ready to Revise Your Class Attendance Policy? | Society for College Science Teachers

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