Student motivation journal club: Supporting our students’ motivation in the era of COVID-19

Our student motivation journal club is ending the academic year in the age of COVID-19 and all that implies: working from home, teaching and/or taking classes remotely, reading shifting but consistently bad news each day. We are learning how to negotiate challenges of spotty internet connection, kids and animals in the workspace, social isolation, and for some, the aftereffects of the tornado that hit Nashville a week before the coronavirus announced itself loudly. We know our students are experiencing their own challenges, some of which are the same as ours and some of which are particular to their own situation.

At our final meeting, we therefore focused on ways that we can support our students’ motivation in this time of remote learning. We used two motivation frameworks from papers we read earlier in the year to ground our thinking: Ecces’ expectancy-values motivation as modified by Hulleman and colleagues (2014), and Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory as described in Trenshaw et al. (2016).

As the expectancy-value figure suggests, we wanted to think about how we can support students’ expectations of success and their value for the tasks of the class while minimizing costs (e.g., time, negative emotions). And Ryan and Deci’s theory indicates that we need to support student autonomy, make sure we promote a sense of connection, and foster their sense of competence.

Jessica Gilpin is senior lecturer in Biological Sciences who is teaching a high-enrollment introductory bio class this semester and who also teaches labs in alternate semesters. Paula Andrade Diniz de Araujo is a graduate student in history who is leading two discussion sections for a history class and is taking a graduate language class this semester. Together, we brainstormed the following ways to support students’ motivation in this challenging time.

To minimize cost to students and to support their autonomy, it’s helpful to lean heavily on asynchronous activities. For example, Jessica is posting video lectures and problem sets that students can engage with on their own time, and for students who are struggling with accessing videos through Brightspace due to spotty internet, she’s putting the videos in a Box folder for them to download. And in Paula’s discussion sections, her students are submitting one-page responses to a discussion question each week rather than meeting synchronously. The submissions are graded on completion, not quality. Not only does this allow students to do the work when works best for them, it also gives Paula a chance to give them feedback on how well they’re understanding the reading.

One worry that can arise when we lean heavily on asynchronous activities is that students can feel disconnected. Jessica and Paula both said that they think their students actually feel more connected to them, as instructors, this semester because of the extensive interaction via email and Brightspace. In addition, Jessica said that her Zoom review session in advance of an exam was very successful, with 60-70 students popping in to ask questions as they could during the hour long review time.

In the online course she is going to teach this summer, Jessica wants to be more intentional about setting up ways for students to interact with each other, probably via discussion boards. She’s considering setting up groups of students to interact around specific homework problems. And because it’s an environment where students can so easily be isolated, she thinks it’s going to be key for her to require the interaction.

We also talked some about student expectations of success, asking ourselves what might make students’ expectations of success differ in a remote learning environment. We think that their concerns may fall into two buckets: Students may worry about technology failures preventing them from succeeding, and they may also feel like they need a lot of personal interaction to succeed and that they have that less.

The first challenge is hard; in the shift-to-remote situation we’re in this semester, the best bet is for instructors to encourage students to communicate and then to be responsive, as Jessica demonstrated by offering her students’ an alternate route to getting videos. As we plan ahead for online courses this summer, it will be a good idea to survey students about their needs and challenges (technological and otherwise) before class starts to allow for troubleshooting. And it’s probably a good idea to make high-stakes assessments less technology-dependent. For example, chemistry faculty member Shawn Phillips recently had students take an exam by downloading it, doing it offline, and then reuploading the results. He was available by Zoom for questions during the work time, but students’ technology requirements were pretty minimal: good enough internet to download and upload small document-type files.

The second challenge—providing opportunities for students to interact with you—is more straightforward. Holding virtual office hours by Zoom and/or chat can let students connect when they need to, and providing brief and targeted feedback on their homework (as Paula does) can provide a sense that students’ work is seen and valued. In addition, Nursing faculty member Abby Parish as gotten very positive feedback on short weekly “here’s what’s coming up” videos that she sends to her students in online classes.

Jessica notes that as she plans her online summer course, she wants to be intentional about supporting students’ sense of task value and competence by adding more low stakes assignments to give students more value for all of the work they are putting in. She said that this semester, some of her students had technical difficulties or spent too much time looking up certain answers on her open-book exam and therefore did not do well. She thinks that having smaller assignments in addition to exams will help them to take initiative to study and will give them multiple opportunities to show what they’ve learned.  

Finally, we speculated about enhancing task value by adjusting your assignments to be about COVID-19 in some way. For example, when I teach biochemistry in the fall, I may ask students how COVID-19 infection impacts a variety of metabolic pathways. [I don’t currently know. 😛 Opportunities for learning abound.] This seems like it could be an easy fit for some courses, and a much harder one for others—and I’m not sure that students will want all of their courses to focus on the pandemic that is shaping their lives right now. But asking ourselves what adjustments to our assignments would make the course have more value to students in this crazy time is probably worthwhile.

I’m sad to see this journal club come to an end; I have found so much value in the thoughtful and productive conversations we have had through the year. We’ll have another journal club with a different focus next year, though—and suggestions for the topic are very welcome! Just email at Cynthia.brame@vanderbilt.edu.

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