Thursday, 04 May 2017 22:05

Student Motivation: Answering the question, “Why”, in the classroom

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Answering the question, “Why”, in the classroom

To help focus on motivating students to prepare for class, the following bibliography and associated quotes are presented to provide discussion around factors that contribute to motivation.

In What the best college teachers do, Ken Bain (2004) writes:

“The most effective teachers help students keep the larger questions of the course constantly at the forefront. Donald Saari, a mathematician from the University of California, invokes the principle of what he calls “ WGAD ”—“ Who gives a damn? ” At the beginning of his courses, he tells his students that they are free to ask him this question on any day during the course, at any moment in class. He will stop and explain to his students why the material under consideration at that moment — however abstruse and minuscule a piece of the big picture it may be — is important, and how it relates to the larger questions and issues of the course.” (Bain, 2004, p. 38).

Freire provides two texts, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1996) and Pedagogy of Freedom (Freire, 1998) that address larger questions around education. In the first, he comments that without a guiding question or focus, students may view their weekly tasks and readings as:

“detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance” (Freire, 1996, p. 52).

In the second text, he asserts that it is the teacher’s duty to:

“Accept as a duty the need to motivate and challenge the listeners to speak and reply” (Freire, 1998, p. 104).

Similarly, in studies based on undergraduate, ‘college’ and post-graduate students, Kember (2015) comments:

“If teachers wish to motivate their students ’ learning they need to find ways to show the relevance of topics included in their courses. If relevance was established, students took an interest in the topic.” (Kember, 2015, p. 83)

To highlight the need for relevance, faculty too, are advised to keep perspective on what they are doing.

“I have to think,” she told us, “about why anyone would want to remember particular pieces of information.” (Bain, 2004, p. 30).

“Teachers need to know the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons” (Hattie, 2009, p. 239).

McLuhan (1964) warns that as we become more specialized in our tasks and classes, the greater the danger that we do not see the larger whole to which we are contributing.

“The specialized task always [escapes] the action of the social conscience”  (McLuhan, 1964, p. 73).

 Autonomy and control in the classroom

Autonomy and learner control in the classroom are widely seen as crucial to motivation. In Gardenfors’ (2011) TEDx talk, he describes learner control as a central factor of motivation.

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Figure 1: Factors generating motivation (Gardenfors, 2015, 18:25).

Freire (1998) adds that the practice of Education is a,

“permanent exercise in … the development of the autonomy of both teachers and students” (Freire, 1998, p. 128).

While the concept of andragogy, or adult education, faces a range of criticism, it is differentiated from K-12 education by the fact that university students are here by choice. There is ample evidence that,

“Adult education [is] characterized by learner control and self-responsibility in learning, learner definition of learning objectives in relation to their relevance to the learner, a problem-solving approach to learning, self-directedness in how to learn, intrinsic learner motivation, and incorporation of the learner experience.” (Blaschke, 2012, p. 58)


With the increase in ‘new’ media, ‘social’ media and other tools in our classrooms, it is useful to remember that technology is by no means new to education.

Mcluhan, in 1964, commented on the ability of technology to engage us.

“As the age of information demands the simultaneous use of all our faculties, we discover that we are most at leisure when we are most intensely involved, very much as with the artists in all ages” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 379).

McLuhan (1964) also argued extensively for the use of technology and various media, not only in the classroom, but in society, as a tool to:

“translate more and more of ourselves into other forms of expression that exceed ourselves” (p. 63).

More recently, to support arguments around the concepts of idea management and learning portfolios, McLuhan (2003) also discussed the idea that,

“one of the peculiarities of the electric age is that we live simultaneously in all of the cultures of the past. All of the past is here and all of the future is here” (p. 213).

Through media and technology, we can access more information than ever before. The challenge is to give our students both the motivation and the skills to benefit from it.

Click here for help files.

Scroll down or click here to see a presentation on Idea Management presented to the Curriculum Advisor Team at Werrington, July 29th, 2016.


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Blaschke, L. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1), 56-71. Retrieved from

Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gärdenfors, P. (2011, October 11). How to motivate students? TEDx. Norrkoping. Retrieved May 2017, from

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. Oxford: Routledge.

Kember, D. (2015). Understanding the Nature of Motivation and Motivating Students through Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Singapore: Springer.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. Cornwall: Routledge.

McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding me. Toronto: MIT Press.

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Dr. Paul Leslie

Associate of Taos Institute:

Education is a Community Affair. 

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