Increase Student Motivation with More Choices

By Sophie Lampard Dennis

It took me 15 years to figure out, but I finally did: When students are offered choices within assignments it increases buy-in and therefore motivation toward the task—and ultimately for the class itself. Back when I was parenting, we called it “choices within limits” (“you can have peas or carrots as your vegetable”), and it worked then too. Simply having the opportunity to make the choice for peas made my toddler want to eat them! I also am aware that in my own life, when I feel that I have some say over what I have to do, my mindset shifts to a more positive one toward the assigned task. Let’s face it; nobody likes to be told what they have to do, least of all this new generation of famously labeled “entitled” students. So, as a professor in an academic setting in which many millennials seem to be suffering from a persistent lack of motivation, it was a no-brainer to consider creating a way to offer students some degree of choice within my curriculum to support a more positive attitude toward assigned work. I’m here to tell you that it works.
As a professor who teaches primarily first-year-seminar classes at Landmark College where all students have a diagnosed LD, AD(H)D, ASD, or other learning difference, and who are therefore considered at-risk as new college students, motivation—especially among the AD(H)D population—can practically be considered a dirty word. Being told you are “unmotivated,” “not trying hard enough” or, very commonly, “lazy”, for much of your academic life, as it turns out, does not seem to actually increase this trait in a person. Because many of my students at Landmark carry academic baggage related to their levels of motivation, as well as legitimate reasons for having difficulty activating, along with a need to further develop self-awareness and understanding around choices and consequences, I have, for many years, directly taught theories of motivation as part of the class curriculum. Resources for this unit include the late University of Connecticut psychologist Julian Rotter’s famous and time-tested “Locus of Control”, McDaniel College Education professor Henry B. Reiff’s “Reframing” theory, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck and her “Mindset” phenomenon, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth’s catchy new concept of “Grit”, and my Landmark college Dorothy A. Osterholt’s and my own work on “The Four Domains of Learning”—one of which is “motivation.” Our First-year Studies professors at Landmark have been teaching this material for years based on the premise that knowledge is power. I realized, however, that ironically, those students who needed the information most weren’t actually activating enough to accomplish the reading assignments, and often missed out on the class discussions as well!

It’s important to note that there is a profile of student for whom getting a good grade (the educational system’s reward for students who get things done) is not motivating enough—and threats of failing also do not seem to make the difference. So, if a looming “F” doesn’t work to convince a student to begin getting assignments in—and to create some level of buy-in—what can?

According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, motivation is defined as the following:

  1. the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something … the act or process of motivating someone
  2. the condition of being eager to act or work : the condition of being motivated
  3. a force or influence that causes someone to do something

The second definition listed is clearly the goal—this is the self-motivated student who is meeting her or his potential; it’s the student who has internalized the class discussions on theories of motivation. This student is probably also working for the grade (or trying not to fail). Don’t all professors wish for a student “eager to act or work”? Don’t students want that for themselves? But to realize the second definition, many new college students—particularly those more at-risk in the classroom—may depend upon the teacher to get the ball rolling with the first and third definitions. These students need us to give them the external motivation for completing the work. They need us to provide motivating factors. And this is where choices come in.

As in most college classes, my students are expected to read many and varied resources from popular and scholarly articles, commentary and books throughout the term. For years, I had designed my course-pack simply by unit, with each of the course readings within that section. Everybody was expected to read everything in the course-pack. One semester, several years ago, I designed a midterm project in which I gave students choices among the sources they could read in order to ultimately produce an annotated bibliography on a topic. It was a hit; students who had been disengaged all term tuned in and completed the project. What was it, I asked, that had changed for them? The answer: They felt some control over their learning and had the ability to pursue something of interest, which produced agency and buy-in. They felt, perhaps, that they were being invited to the table to help direct their own learning; they were empowered—active, not passive. Carrots or peas, this article or that chapter—it may be a small choice, but it’s a choice.

Since that time, I have completely redesigned my course-pack for every class I teach. Now, there is a “Required Reading” section and a “Supplemental Reading” section. The resources in the second section are mostly further readings on a topic from the first; students who particularly enjoyed reading about Mindset, or The Four Domains of Learning as a required assignment, for example, can choose to further their understanding of the topic later in the term with another resource, chosen by them, which provides a different slant, an update to the theory, or is more in-depth. In addition, I include an entirely new section within Supplemental Readings on “Technology in the Millennial Age” which contains half a dozen current articles on various aspects of this topic, and from which students will draw for the final project.

Students will have choices at both midterm, and during the final research project, to select a theme and readings from the supplemental section of the course-pack to integrate into their work (they will also be expected to locate additional sources through databases and the library on their topics). Additionally, I have recently instituted a new scheme; students who read all of the articles in the course-pack (and produce a summary of each) can earn extra credit. This has become a popular competition in my class!

I have found that many students embrace the idea of choice, and class engagement and assignment completion have increased overall since I changed the way I designed my course and reading assignments—especially among those students who had struggled with these earlier in the term. For those who were highly motivated to begin with, engagement in class and with work has predictably remained high. We all appreciate being offered choices, and as classroom teachers, we have the opportunity to create motivating environments for students simply by increasing reading and assignment options.

Sophie Lampard Dennis is associate professor of education at Landmark College.

Other NEJHE Posts by this Author

The Demise of the Faculty Lounge

How Do We Get Them to Do the Homework?

A Way to Promote Student Motivation and Autonomy

Holistic Support that Promotes Student Learning



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