Student motivation and activation

Throughout my own experiences as a student I can remember spending little time consciously reflecting on teaching and learning with others – and perhaps not even with myself. One important area of self-reflection and development for me as a lecturer has therefore been to catch up, and to practice identifying and adapting my teaching to students with different personalities and backgrounds, and leaving space for them to learn and grow in my courses.

Messineo (2018), discussing learning from a cognitive science perspective, outlines important differences between how expert and novice learners learn. She addresses important characteristics of the novice learners, including a tendency to be more emotionally engaged in the learning process, that they have poorer metacognitive skills, and that they have not yet developed successful learning strategies such as avoiding multitasking, testing themselves for understanding, and allowing for failure in the learning process. Lecturers need to pay particular attention to this difference in status between their students (predominantly novice learners) and themselves (expert learners), since “assuming that your students learn and experience information just like you do can create barriers in the classroom context” (p. 16).

For some students of English, these barriers can be higher due to language anxiety. Research on this topic suggests that “in most cases, the straightforward approaches of teacher support and an encouraging classroom environment, will remain the best options” (Horowitz, 2017, p. 42). Among Horowtiz’ more specific suggestions for how to deal with language anxiety are explicitly acknowledging that students may feel uncomfortable speaking in a foreign language, highlighting that they are not alone in this experience, offering them the chance to share and discuss with teachers and fellow students at an early stage, and connecting students with more advanced students that students may identify with (more so than their lecturer) as language learners (pp. 42-43).

Two of the consequences of my own reflections on this topic have been adopting a stronger emphasis on collecting and interpreting student perspectives and (formative) evaluation before, during and after a course, as well as more student-centered and active teaching approaches where students can learn from each other, share experiences and discuss and develop learning strategies together. Using learning activities with an element of informality and entertainment can also “distract attention away from individual speakers” (Horowitz, 2017, p. 44), which can be beneficial for alleviating language anxiety. Pair and group activities can have a similar function. I was among the first course co-ordinators in our faculty to make use of learning assistants in several courses, and we can observe noticeable benefits from this in our students’ engagement during the course, and in their final exam results.

When student evaluation and feedback is “made part of the learning process” (Bowden and Marton, 1998, as cited in Pettersen, 2005, p. 284), which is an often recommended approach to evaluation, this also contributes strongly to my own motivation for collecting students’ perspectives.

Over the years, I have devoted an increasing amount of class time to reflections on challenges such as time-management, motivation, sharing newfound knowledge with others, developing study techniques, and how students can meaningfully integrate their studies into their lives and other obligations, interests and worries. The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted these challenges and introduced new ones, such as an increased lack of focus and reduced contact with peers and lecturers in and between classes. The important link between students’ wellbeing and their learning (Hughes, 2020) has become even more prominent. In their study “Narratives of time and visibility: a study of student participation in digital teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic”, Bern et al. (2021) found that some students find the increased visibility in online (synchronous) teaching spaces challenging, and that there can be fewer opportunities to engage in meaningful discussion with lecturers and peers when teaching predominantly takes place online.

As discussed by Fritze and Nordkvelle (2016), positive social dynamics contribute positively to learning, and the important task of “developing conversations of all kinds” (my translation) can become more challenging in a remote setting. In my experience, teaching that predominantly takes place online benefits greatly from early activities that emphasise students’ expectations of the course and their studies, their engagement with the technology needed to follow the course, the potential challenges students and lecturers can face in the process, as well as the social dynamics of the group. Devoting this time early on can contribute to a confidence in working online, which in turn can make collaborative activities later on in the course more successful and meaningful (Christensen, 2016, p. 8).

I have collected some of my most recent attempts at creating a sense of presence adapted to the digital medium (Fritze & Nordkvelle, 2016) here.

While the pandemic has certainly highlighted these challenges and developed the discourse surrounding them, it has also brought about a much-needed higher level of awareness and understanding among institutions in higher education concerning what support structures and tools (outlined in e.g. Christensen, Kjær, & Hansen, 2020) are needed to address them. Focus and resources have to a greater extent been channelled into professional development courses and tools providing the digital competence and the digital infrastructure lecturers and students need. Ultimately, this has given us a well-stocked and more advanced toolbox, with tools we can use in order to foster early engagement and create a safe and social learning environment (which may also help students cope with language anxiety) – irrespective of the medium of instruction (i.e. also in the physical classroom).

Photo by Pixabay on

–> 4. Learning from each other

<– Return to Teaching portfolio