How to Motivate Students to Actually Do Homework and Reading

column | Teaching and Learning

How to Motivate Students to Actually Do Homework and Reading

By Bonni Stachowiak (Columnist)     Jan 7, 2022

How to Motivate Students to Actually Do Homework and Reading

This article is part of the guide: Toward Better Teaching: Office Hours With Bonni Stachowiak.

The following is the latest installment of the Toward Better Teaching advice column. You can pose a question for a future column here.

Reader Question:

Dear Bonni, What ideas do you have for student accountability? How do we get students to do pre-class work without giving a grade to everything? —Looking for change

Dave, my husband, was in the driveway a few days ago, about to head somewhere with our two kids. I had just finished my elliptical workout and he asked, “Are you glad you did it?” I was glad, but it didn’t start that way. The moves came prior to the motivation.

For 429 days straight, I have exercised for at least thirty minutes, a routine that gets reinforced by the sense of accomplishment and my overall better health. I was indeed happy to have taken that next step toward continuing my commitment. But I don’t rely on a feeling to get me moving most days. Instead, I lean on the power of habits to draw me into action, even when the way I’m feeling doesn’t necessarily prompt me. Often, students experience the same mindset around out of class preparation and we wind up needing to help them establish good habits beyond what they may naturally exhibit on their own.

James Clear describes the four components of our established patterns in “Atomic Habits: An Easy, Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.” Cues are the triggers that we humans associate with some type of a reward. Cravings are the drives that motivate us to act. Responses are the behaviors or thoughts we in turn produce, assuming that there isn’t too much friction preventing them—and ample reasons to produce them. Rewards are what we get when we take the intended action or think the desired thought.

Building up a habit like the one I have done for exercise involves both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for most people. It actually requires some unlearning, and some changes in approach, to create an environment that better encourages students to complete assigned activities. Instructors first need to consider how we use grades in our teaching—and then explore what kinds of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations exist and persist for our students.

Much of our students’ educational experiences have taught them to search out the rewards for a transactional gauge of their actions in the form of points or grades. In Susan Blum’s “Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (And What to Do, Instead),” we discover that when it comes to concerns about grade inflation:

“The trouble isn’t that too many students are getting As but that too many students have been led to believe the primary purpose of schooling is to get As,” she writes.

Part of the reason why students don’t complete the pre-work for classes is because they have been conditioned to focus on extrinsic rewards in their education. All too often, collecting as many points as possible becomes the game, perfectly designed to squeeze out any intrinsic motivations that might have otherwise surfaced along the way.

So how do you get students to complete the tasks that will help them better engage in a class session? Here are some approaches that have worked well for me specific to the context you inquired about.

Two common concerns that I’ve come across are that:

  • Grading takes up too much time for instructors, and that
  • Instructors wish students did the work before class without needing to be awarded points for their effort.

First of all, there are approaches that can help reduce grading time while still giving useful feedback to students. For instance, instructors can strategically assign tasks that can be auto-graded, or spot-checked. When vocabulary is an important aspect of a class I’m teaching, I will sometimes assign an auto-graded quiz that presents ten questions from a large bank of terms and allow for the quiz to be repeated by students until they earn their desired score. In other assignments, students are instructed to record a screencast of themselves playing a matching game that reinforces the vocabulary.

Michelle Miller encourages us in “Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology” to not feel like instructors have to evaluate each and every thing that a student submits to one of our classes. In my case, I tend to watch every screencast video that is submitted, or otherwise how would I ever learn the names of each student’s pet? But I do watch the videos at double speed, and I’m able to get through them relatively quickly. And I sometimes delegate some portion of the work to a teaching assistant.

The most common homework given to students in most classes is reading. To incentivize that, I typically assign reading exercises and quizzes. First, I ask students to submit analog or digital notes related to what they read. A common format I use is a 5-3-1 structure: where they identify five main points that stood out to them, three ways they might apply what they read and one question they have as a discussion prompt for others who read the same passages. Second, I frequently have fewer than ten auto-graded questions to test for understanding of the assigned reading. Finally, I have around five reflection and application questions as part of the reading quiz.

As for the complaint that students should want to do reading or other pre-work purely from intrinsic motivation, I have this advice. In the book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink notes that: “Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others—sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on—can sometimes have dangerous side effects.” It’s worth reflecting on ways we can let students be more self-directed to foster intrinsic motivation in their studies.

When I spoke with James Lang for the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, he shared the way his thinking has evolved regarding motivation. He stressed that the research shows that:

“We need to have those intrinsic motivators, and a lot of school-based motivation is extrinsic in the form of grades and degrees and all that other stuff. We do need to pull up those intrinsic motivators in any way that you can. I have to say though, over the past few years, as I’ve continued to look at that research and think more and more about this question, I’ve come to believe that actually we need both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in order to be successful.”

Lang continued to describe how in endeavors such as exercise, ideally we would be intrinsically motivated, but people often aren’t. Instead, they use social connections and external reminders of their achievements to bridge the gap between the actions (actually going for the run) and the rewards (recognizing how great it feels after we exercise). In this way, the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations can spur each other on.

Another overall recommendation on how to get students to not require as much external motivation is to consider the alternatives to traditional grades. In addition to Susan Blum’s ‘Ungrading,’ I recommend:

Grading for Growth: This collection of posts via the Substack newsletter engine by Robert Talbert and David Clark explores the challenges with the ways we tend to approach grades in higher education and how to use alternative grading practices that focus on growth.

Ungrading Twitter Thread: Curated by Jesse Stommel, this thread has the links to much of Jesse’s writing and speaking on the topic. Instead of adopting “best practices,” he implores us to adopt what he called “necessary practices.”

How have I been able to keep up a 429-day streak of exercise? Partially, it is because I want to live longer and be able to be more present for those I love. The intrinsic factors motivating me are strong over the long haul and they build upon one another. However, when it comes to the daily discipline to keep going, it does help when I get these buzzes on my wrist via an Apple Watch, telling me that I can still achieve my fitness goals for the day. When I look at the app that reports out my streaks, yet taunts me with what is left to accomplish today to keep the momentum going, I wind up doing the thing I don’t feel like doing in the moment for the bigger picture rewards.

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