Thoughts on Motivating and Inspiring Students

This post contains the slides and a rough script of a talk I gave on 13/6/2019 at TUD (Tallaght Campus)


Slide1This presentation is not designed to be an instruction manual on how to inspire/motivate third level students to commit to their studies. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think I have all the answers. Instead, I set out to make a number of observations about the broad areas of inspiration and motivation and especially the pitfalls involved in relying on inspiration or focusing solely on making classes “engaging”.  I do make a number of suggestions based on my experience of teaching biotechnology in DCU and my most important point will be that progress leads to motivation rather than (for the most part) motivation leading to progress. This leads to the ultimate conclusion that the best way to get students to commit to their studies is to teach them well. It’s not a very dramatic conclusion but it does simplify things for us because it means that we have one goal only and that is to teach well.


As a youngster, I was inspired by astronomy and astrophysics. I was a nerd. I devoured popular books on these subjects and I watched pioneering TV shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the BBC’s Horizon. In a way, I think I was searching for meaning just as a religious person searches for meaning through faith and prayer. This was the late seventies and early eighties and the shadow of a confrontation between the US and the USSR hung over everyone and a lot of us teenagers were a bit angst-ridden. So by the time I did the Leaving Cert in 1980 I was leaning heavily towards a career in physics with the ultimate hope of specialising in astrophysics or space science.


Thirty-five years later I find that I have published a book on filters of all things! How did that happen? How did someone who had such an interest in all things space and astronomy end up studying and becoming an “expert” in a such a seemingly mundane subject as  membrane filtration. The answer to that question goes to the heart of the difference between inspiration and motivation. It also speaks to the fact that at 18 years of age we don’t know ourselves all that well – we have an image of ourselves – and education, the very purpose of which is to open our eyes to new possibilities, often leads us down unexpected paths, paths you never knew existed because of your limited experience of the world. That is why I think it is not necessarily good advice to tell young school leavers to “follow your passion”.


So let’s talk about inspiration and motivation, taking inspiration first. The first thing to say about the feeling of being inspired is that it  is an emotional response – it’s not an intellectual one. When you are inspired, you have an urge to follow, to emulate, to challenge oneself, to achieve. Greta Thunberg might inspire you to do something to save the planet – but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually do anything. Indeed that feeling of being inspired is often short-lived and while you may be inspired one day to recyle like never before, it’s quite normal to get up the next day and go about your business as usual.  Furthermore and as a teacher, if you rely on your ability to inspire students, you’re likely to be disappointed because what’s inspiring to one student might make another feeling unmoved. Some students you’ll never reach. Many times I have left a lecture theatre convinced that I had been inspiring only to be brought back down to earth at exam time.


A good example of the limitations of inspiration is The Pendulum Summit which takes place every year in the National Convention Centre and is wall-to-wall inspirational speakers. If you attend this summit you’ll find that your attention is held for hours on end. But here’s the thing: you’ll have forgotten nearly everything the speakers have said (bar a soundbite or two) by the time the day is over. In fact, what’s really inspiring about the Pendulum talks is the stage craft of the speakers not the substance of what their saying. In a way, all that ’passion’ is distracting.


I have forgotten literally everything I heard at the Pendulum summit I attended except for these words (“choose your attitude”) from Debra Searle who rowed across the Atlantic on her own. (Her husband started out with her but had to be airlifted off the boat because he was suffering from panic attacks. They’re now divorced.) The thing about Debra Searle’s talk was that it was not all passion and frantic pacing around the stage. It was low key, and the emphasis was on substance, not style. I learned from her.


Richard Feynman is said to be one of the greatest physicists of all time. He is also said to have been an inspirational teacher. (You’ll find loads of him on YouTube.) However, if you dig into things a little more deeply you find that he might have been inspirational but he wasn’t necessarily a very good teacher. He pitched the material at a level that very few people could understand even if they were enthralled. Students flocked to his lectures but they also flocked away.


So for a teacher/lecturer, a far better strategy to encourage students to commit to their studies is to focus on motivation. Motivation is generally associated with a specific goal, e.g. to get a good grade in a module, to learn a valuable workplace skill, to run a 10K etc. Motivating is practical and pragmatic. When motivating, you provide the student with the necessary tools to continually make progress, and you use feedback to help the student monitor their progress. Progress is key. None of this to say that emotion is not involved when embarking on any journey. Even the most motivated will have moments of self-doubt, disappointment, confusion and even elation. All journeys, even learning ones, are emotional.

I also think that when it comes to ‘teaching’ we can learn a lot from the world of sport. It is very easy to be inspired by, say, watching Roger Federer on centre court and it is noticeable that during Wimbledon the number of kids attempting to play tennis on the green outside my house increases enormously. By August, thought, the footballs are back and the tennis rackets (some of which might be brand new) are back in the garden shed. Inspiration is one thing; motivation is another.


It appears to me that much of the effort spent on getting students to commit to their studies leans towards inspiration rather than motivation. And the same ideas keep cropping up. I’m going to focus on just four of them.


First though, let’s divert to say a few things about the word “engagement”. It’s a word that’s overused these days  and it is very loosely defined. Often it means little more than some sort of interaction between two people or between a person and a device or a book or whatever. This extract from a column in the Guardian is a witty take down of the word and the irony running through it is that despite all the England and Wales Cricket Board’s efforts to “engage” with the public, they have allowed a situation to develop whereby the cricket world cup cannot be viewed on terrestrial TV!


For me, engagement means “the extent to which students commit to all aspects of their studies”, especially the extent to which they commit to studying in their own independent learning time.


When looking at the engagement phenomenon we first have to recognise that there are many aspects of a student’s life that we cannot control and many of these will impact on their ability to commit. We know for example that for many if not most students the 125 hour module is completely unrealistic. Typically this ad hoc number would require a student (doing 6 modules per semester) to study up to 50 hours a week. That is not happening and everyone knows it.


EDtech or technology enhanced learning or whatever you like to call it is gradually becoming a feature of higher education. Much of this is driven by a vague sense that if we have all this technology, then we should use it. It’s also driven by the presumption that students these days are ‘digital natives’: this term refers to the belief that the modern 18 year-old who has been exposed to technology since birth will be more likely to commit to his/her learning if that learning occurs in a digital environment. It’s also driven by the belief that modern students will actually learn better in a digital environment, a belief that is reminiscent of the now debunked ‘learning styles’ idea. And of course there is the authenticity concept which I’ll talk about later: this is the idea that the way students learn and what they learn should be authentic, i.e., it should reflect what is going on in the real world. And if the real world is digital, then the learning environment should be digital too. Or at least that’s the reasoning.

I think there is plenty of truth in the idea that this generation has an affinity for digital technology (if not necessarily an aptitude) and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the availability of multimedia tools, even if it’s just YouTube videos, has had significant benefits. YouTube has certainly benefited my teaching as I have very poor spatial reasoning skills and many times I have struggled over the years to explain how a lot of  chemical engineering equipment worked. I was fine on the theory but the machines themselves often baffled me. Now I can show videos and animations (of pumps for example) and everyone benefits.

But does the use of Edtech motivate students to go home, or go to the library, and knuckle down and study. I’m not so sure and this is something I’ll return to later.


The next strategy that tends to be used in an effort to inspire students is active learning. Now, I have absolutely no conceptual problem with active learning – most of my lecture time is taken up with active learning – but I think there is a danger that the tasks students ‘engage’ in are of little utility. But there seems to be an underlying belief, thanks to Confucius, that ‘doing’ leads to better learning that listening or watching. We have to remember that Confucius was a philosopher, not a cognitive scientist, so we have to take his statement with a large pinch of salt.


Furthermore, there seems to be a belief, or a sort of unconscious bias, that taking part in activities that have even a  remote connection to the subject will inspire students to study that subject in the future.


This belief is especially strong at second level and is a feature of the new Junior Cycle. Indeed if you peruse #STEM on Twitter, you’ll find a huge emphasis on fun activities that are believed to be inspiring as well as supposedly teaching all sorts of “skills”.  There is a real need for a fully informed debate to be had here; otherwise we risk messing up a second level system that is working well by international standards. And what happens at second level ultimately impacts on third level.


The idea that doing “sciencey” things is inspiring has opened up all sorts of commercial avenues for toy makers and also science ‘galleries’ like W5 in Belfast, Explorium in Sandyford and Imaginosity, also in Sandyford. In my experience, the motto for these places should be “I do and I’m entertained.” I don’t think we can say with any conviction, “I do and I’m inspired”  and certainly not “I do and I learn”.  We need to be wary of corporations, who have an obvious commercial agenda, muscling in on education and driving change based on plausibility rather than real evidence.


This, from Robert Coe, Director of Research and Evaluation at Evidence Based Education, is one of my favourite education quotes and should act as a warning to everybody who champions active learning in education: “Engagement is a poor proxy for learning”.


Coe’s statement can be recast in more plain language and a little more precisely: “Just because they’re busy that doesn’t mean they’re learning what you want them to learn.” Two aspects of learning activities are important to discuss: distraction and the problem of transfer. In his book “Why don’t students like school?”, Daniel Willingham talks a lot about the problem of distraction. Distraction occurs when, in an effort to make a topic “engaging”, an activity is designed which then dominates the students’ thinking while the original topic is forgotten about. An example might be if a teacher is giving a class on Roman history and in an effort to make the class engaging, brings the class down to the woodwork lab where the students all get stuck into making a Roman sword. The net result will be that the students learn a bit about sawing and hammering but little or nothing about Rome.


The other issue, and it is a key one, is that it is usually the case that what students learn in one activity will not “transfer” to other domains. For example, suppose I set out with the aim of teaching ‘problem-solving skills’ and I get my students to build a Lego robot. Well, the evidence shows that at the end of the lesson the students will have acquired the ability to build a Lego robot. It is highly unlikely though that they will have acquired the ability to problem-solve in another domain: law or microbiology or economics, whatever. So why build the robot at all? Interesting research on the problem of transfer was done many years ago where it turned out that air traffic controllers are no better at keeping a lot of mental balls in the air than the rest of us. Their skill as air traffic controllers has much to do with training, practice, SOPs and experience.


An increasingly common philosophy in education is that of instrumentalism, i.e., a pragmatic philosophical approach which regards an activity (such as science, law, or education) chiefly as an instrument or tool for some practical purpose. Many academics, ironically mainly those who would see themselves as “progressive” are instrumentalists at heart and they believe students are too. How else can you explain the many, many times you here even senior educators  talk about “problem-solving” and “real world problems”. Seriously, what is the obsession with problem-solving all about? Loads of profession and jobs have absolutely nothing to do with problem-solving. This underlying instrumentalism provides the rational for “authentic” learning approaches.




The above is  a formal definition of authentic learning. I find it depressing and in my view, one of the most pernicious ideas in all of education. The authentic approach usually comes as a package with a bunch of “progressive” and (unproven) pedagogies, combining to make education a potentially soulless experience for students.


Look at what we miss out on if our thinking is dominated by “authenticity”.  What kid is not fascinated by dinosaurs even though they are  never going to see one. And no kid is going to wander down to the Tallaght town centre in fear of being savaged by a lion: yet, TV shows about animals are hugely popular. And what about art and poetry and the mysteries of the universe? If you are never exposed to these things how can you be sure they’re not going to relevant to your life. The authenticity idea is an intellectual dead-end. Mind you, if we run with the authenticity idea, we could cut the time required to educate a person by at least 50% and save a lot of money that we could use for the health service. There’s only so much real world problem-solving you can do.


The idea of offering students choice as a way of enhancing their motivation is a plausible one and it is something that would be quite easy to verify by trawling through exam marks. Indeed, I really like UCD’s Horizons approach but it has huge resource implications. But choice has its dangers and research by Paul Kirschner, for example, has shown that students tend to choose those subjects/projects that will offer them the path of least resistance. Indeed, when you actually talk to students, they admit that they often make quite important decisions – what final year project to choose for example – based on perceptions as to how strict or how supportive the relevant academic is said to be. So choice has its drawbacks.


Anyway, so let’s try to be positive now and suggest a few things and most of what I’m going to mention falls under the heading of motivation rather than inspiration.


Active learning does work as long as it’s designed well with no distractions! The activity has to be designed in such a way that the main focus is on the students learning what you want them to learn – not to be engaged for engagement’s sake.


A key aspect of the design of active learning is to ensure that the cognitive demand on the students is appropriate. In his book “The Hidden Lives of Learners”, Nuthall observed that if the challenge was too difficult, students tended to disengage.


A good, real-life example of this issue is shown here. If you get a gift of the jigsaw on the left you won’t even open the box. The one on the right is perfect: an interesting scene with a mix of easy and hard bits. You’ll make it.


When designing activities, remember that people have different working styles. Introverts might like to work on problems on their own. Let them. Don’t enforce collaboration just because someone says that the ability to collaborate is a useful workplace skill. So is thinking on your own. Consider this quote from Steve Wozniak, creator of the first Apple computer

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

So we shouldn’t forget to create an environment where introverts as well as extroverts can flourish. Actually, my theory as to why so many people recall not liking school is that the classroom is not a great place for introverts to be. All that interaction, day after day, is exhausting for an introvert and given that about one third of the population is introverted, it is no surprise that school gets a bad rap. I worry that higher education is becoming more and more biased towards extroverts and campuses lack enough quiet spaces for the introverted student to escape and think.


In her book about Grigori Perlman, a Russian mathematician who won a Millenium Prize (worth a million euro – which Perlman didn’t claim – he lives with his mother in a flat in Moscow) for proving the Poincaré conjecture, Masha Gessen writes in detail about the Russian system of teaching mathematics, a discipline in which they excel. Their approach was essentially the SLOP method – the Shed Load Of Problems method – but done in a very competitive and individualistic way. I use this approach but in class in an open and collaborative (if desired) environment. It’s a classic engineering approach – there’s nothing new about it – but it works. Stop any engineer in his or her tracks and ask her what the best way to learn engineering is and 99% of them will say “you have to do the problems!”.


The in-class SLOP approach has many advantages as shown in the slide. But as the following slide shows there are some drawbacks.


The biggest of these, in my view, is the opportunity cost. Unless you are willing (and able) to significantly increase contact time, the in-class SLOP approach comes with a large reduction in content. In that case, curriculum design becomes crucial: you have to really think hard about what it is students need to know as opposed to what it would be nice for them to know. The other key issue that I see is that by doing the problems in class, you might be creating a dependency culture. In my days as a student, we were expected to simply get on with completing problem sets in your own time.  If I could be sure that my students would work hard on problem solving during their study time, I would definitely reduce (but not eliminate) the amount  of  in-class problem solving we do. That way I’d be able to increase the amount of content. Despite all the silly talk about knowledge not being so important because we have Google, content remains key to education.


One practical example of active learning we did in the School of Biotechnology in DCU was to come up with a  design and build project. This was one of the best things we’ve ever done. The project was scheduled as two lab ‘experiments’ so there was no real opportunity cost. It was all about the topic being taught, namely heat transfer. There was lots of cutting and drilling but at all times the aim was clear: maximise the rate of heat transfer between the hot fluid and the cold fluid. We got some very interesting designs!


This may come as a surprise but I think we need to teach IT skills to enhance our students’ levels of motivation. For many years now I have been exasperated by poor attention to detail by students. It has baffled me, annoyed me and made with rant even more than usual. And I’ve come to the conclusion that much of what I see is down to the fact that students are not proficient with key software like Word and Excel and when they are writing their reports and projects they are cognitively overloaded by having to deal with all the unfamiliar nuts and bolts of the various packages they are using. They must find the whole process of completing continuous assessment work deeply frustrating and, fundamentally, demotivating. It must be like trying to play golf never having been told even how to hold a club, never mind swing it. So I think we have to stop assuming that our students are proficient in Word and Excel, or that that they will learn these packages by osmosis: I think we have to make space in the curriculum to actually teach them these skills. The digital native idea does not extend to Microsoft Office.


We all like to know where we’re going in life and first year students are a case in point. Most of them have little idea as to where their chosen course will take them. And the evidence is clear on this: if students have a sense of direction, a sense that there is a goal awaiting them, they are more likely to commit. (This is one reason why I worry about making first year too generic even though it’s a seductive idea.) So I use my final years and my former students to come in and talk to my early-years students. Logistics can be a struggle, especially with alumni, but the positive impact is significant.


Another thing I do is to give my  “My 10 Kinds of Scientist” talk. Students come in to science courses with an image of a scientist as someone in a lab with a white coat on. When they find out that many if not most scientists work in an office or in a production plant (not a lab), they are genuinely surprised. After giving the lecture I ask them to write a 500 personal statement about what kind of scientist they would like to be. Their statements  make fascinating reading.


We often forget that the bulk of a module is allocated to independent learning. It would appear (and I think we obsess too much about the contact time), if students are to be believed  that they put in the time but still perform poorly at exam time. This must be very demotivating and lead to a huge amount of frustration. Students need to be taught the key techniques for effective study. I’m not talking about fresh air and a good diet and all the sort of nonsense that appears in the paper at Leaving Cert time, I’m talking about what you actually do when you sit down at your desk to study. A good place to start is

Slide39And this is my key slide.  Most of the time we have things backwards; we assume that if we inspire students they will become motivated make progress. The reality is that motivation follows from making progress (although some level of motivation must be required to make that initial step forward). So the key to motivation is GOOD TEACHING. It’s that simple. You won’t motivate everyone but you will reach the maximum number of students if you teach well.


What makes a good teacher?  Here are some of my thoughts on this. I should say that I’m conservative. I think the evidence shows, unequivocally, that the most effective way of teaching novices is for you, the teacher, to be the sage on the stage, not the guide on the side. Be a nice and supportive sage, but a sage nonetheless.


Back to me: How did I go from being inspired by astrophysics to being motivated by chemical engineering. Life took over, I made practical decisions and I found I loved chemical engineering. I realised I like the pragmatism of it, the creativity of it, and the down -to-earthness of it. My head was no longer in space. And having studied quite a lot of engineering mathematics, I realised that I wouldn’t have had the motivation to study the level of mathematics required to be an astrophysicist. Most of all, the competitor in me realised that I could be a good chemical engineer but I’d probably have been a mediocre physicist. And who wants to be a mediocre anything?

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