The Carrot, the Stick, or Neither: Student Motivation (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part V of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, II, III, IV, VI]

One of my favorites experiments on motivation (or “incentive,” as economists tend to call it) examined the best means to encourage parents to pick up their children on time from day care. I first read about this study in Freakonomics many years ago and it regularly pops into my head. The researchers designed the experiment so that several day care centers established a minimal fine to help incentivize parents who were consistently late. Resoundingly, the result was that more parents came late! It’s astoundingly simple: the inner moral motivation that made parents be on time was offloaded to an external financial motivation. Parents no longer needed to think that they were bad for being late, it would just cost them a few bucks. Not surprisingly, the type of motivation matters.[1]

Working for Instructional Development I am blessed to be surrounded by folks who are passionate about thinking, talking, and exploring all things “pedagogy.” I am also surrounded by folks who are wicked smart, and a few days ago my colleague, Katie, offered an hour long seminar on the main theories of motivation. As she explained, there is no Grand Unifying Motivation Theory (my language), but several theories that clearly overlap (see: jangle fallacy) and fill in some mutual oversights or underdeveloped perspectives. After some good conversation and further reflection, here are some of my most practical takeaways:

  • Students generally take my classes because they are required to do so. Religious Studies courses often cover a range of General Education requirements, and thus draw in many non-majors. From the perspective of Self-Determination Theory, many of my students are complying to an external regulation, and as such may formulate what is called “extrinsic motivation” [see chart below]. Extrinsic motivation is not necessarily problematic per se, but “intrinsic motivation” has been shown to be more readily related to enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. This explanation aligns with a practice I began several years ago. On the first day of class, when the class size is small enough, instead of asking students where they are from, or what their hobbies are, I orient discussion around why they are taking this class. They could take a gamut of classes to fulfill their requirements, so why this one? Students who initially said (in small group conversation) they only took the class because they “had to,” will start to open up about their interest in another culture or religious perspective, or about wanting to know more about their family or friends. Overall, I try to cultivate a sense of intrinsic motivation by having them realize they have some self-determination in the courses they choose. I ask them to identify some inner motivation and return to it throughout the course.
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From Ryan & Deci 2000

  • While this is more applicable to my writing courses (where students tend to have a more entrenched view of being poorly skilling in writing), Self-Determination Theory also highlights the need for a person to feel competent, in addition to a sense of autonomy, in order to develop or sustain intrinsic motivation. Thus, not surprisingly, overly negative feedback from instructors (or peers) can influence student motivation. Unfortunately, I think this is often interpreted as the need to treat students as infantile and perfecting the “shit-sandwich” critique method. But – more importantly – I also think this means assigning regular smaller assignments, or low stakes assessment, so students can build up a repertoire of skills and, subsequently, confidence through a sense of competency. This approach overall aligns with scaffolding theory and the general advice to offer numerous small assignments/quizzes over the course of the term. This could also manifest in numerous other ways, such as asking students to come in with a potential research question or one book or article they would like to explore when the have larger research papers to write.


  • I think we all naturally attest to the fact that interest also drives motivation. So why not just pack lectures and readings with “interesting” factoids? Research into Interest Theory suggests there might be a negative relationship if there is too much extraneous – though possibly fun (so-called “seductive details“) – material for students to sort through. “Interesting” sidebar comments in readings (or I suppose, “fun” stories in lecture [edit: yes, in lecture too!], or hyperlinks in web documents?!) simply add unnecessary cognitive load and recruit ill-suited conceptual schemas. It’s better to focus on clarity, than fell prey to endless “interest baiting.”


  • There seems to be much debate on the value of the “sage-on-the-stage” style of straight lecturing and the amount of time students can pay attention, with 10, 15, and 20-minute maximums being reported. Instead of critiquing our students for not being able to pay attention, I would gently remind my fellow scholars that in our professional lives, many of the conference papers we listen to are (sometimes mercifully!) capped at about 15-20 minutes. In addition, the reason we find some papers interesting is mostly because we easily relate the ideas to our base knowledge – we find ideas useful to our own work, we think about old ideas in new ways, or sometime want to challenge a view that doesn’t align with our ideas, and so forth. Often student interest is diminished because they are less likely to be asked to relate to the ideas than just memorize them. How we assess our students can shift the imbalance.


  • My last observation is a little less formulated. According to Goal-Orientation Theory, there are different goal orientations that influence various self-regulatory processes. For those who have a “mastery orientation,” they tend to outperform on a series of measurements, including effort, persistence, non-procrastination, and both cognitive and meta-cognitive accomplishment. For those who have a “performance-approach orientation,” meaning they are primarily driven to demonstrate competency in order to receive favorable assessment (e.g. be the best student), they generally only outperform in one measurable category – course grade. Yes, read that again. A mastery orientation, which is beneficial in so many facets, does not necessarily lead to top performance [see chart below]. In the seminar, it was suggested that one way to push more students to a mastery orientation was to start assessing them in areas where it outperformed performance-approach orientation, of which I think persistence (regular, small or low stakes assignments?) and meta-cognition (reflection?) may be the most easily assessible.


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From Radosevich et. al. 2007.


Grist for the Mill: I only discussed three motivational theories, Interest Theory, Self-Determination Theory, and Goal-Orientation Theory, and while I feel they provided a strong foundation for how I might structure a university course, there is a lot more to unpack. I may be biased in that I’ve read these theories to justify what I already do, but nevertheless, I feel compelled to continue to openly discuss student motivation in class, offer regular low-stakes assessment, provide frequent feedback and encouragement, and design larger assignments that can be divided into stages and are meant to be, at least partly, student-directed.

UPDATE: Very interesting article I just ran across.


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] Clearly there is more at stake in the experiment (and increasing the amount of the fine would clearly also change the outcome), this is just the gist that I often reflect upon.


  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
  • Radosevich, D.J., Allyn M.R. & Yun S. (2007). Goal orientation and goal setting: Predicting performance by integrating four-factor Goal Orientation Theory with goal setting processes. Seoul Journal of Business, 13(1), 21-47.

How Does One Do “Religious Studies” [II]? (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part II of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, III, IV, V, VI]

Knowing the demographic and interests of the student body you teach matters. I’ve taught for several years at a large state university and it’s become a pet project of mine to keep a loose tally the majors of my students. Less than 1% major in the humanities. Admittedly, my classes overall reflet a small sample size, but university graduates with degrees in the humanities have only been between 10-15% in the past 30 years [also note the neagtive trends in the Humanities, and Religious Studies in particular, in the cart below]. Most of my taught classes have been university-required academic writing classes, so I would guess it’s a pretty fair representation (i.e. random sampling) of the student body as a whole. Yet, most of the students are freshman or sophomores, and to be frank, I’ve found that most of them don’t know what the humanities are, let alone have the motivation to major in a humanities discipline.




These suspicious were only confirmed this past summer. I was a last minute teaching assistant for a course that introduced the “research university” to incoming freshman. It was an online course to service the students who could not attend, for financial reasons or otherwise, the highly successful “head start” program, where incoming freshman took summer courses before their formal fall start.

Our course introduced the structure and disciplinary divisions of a research university, which is significantly different from their educational experience in high school. The middle three weeks of the five week course were devoted to explorations of the humanities, social sciences, and math & natural sciences respectively. Students watched recorded interviews of faculty members from each department, interviews of undergraduate majors, and watched or read other media describing the exciting intellectual opportunities of different disciplines.

There was a clear, noticeable trend among the weekly reflections of our students. Many commented that they simply did not know what the humanities studied or why it was valuable to their careers. Others said they enjoyed or excelled at humanities classes in high school, but opted for the safer STEM major (or were heavily persuaded by their parents) when going to college. Clearly, many of these sentiments are motivated by – understandable in some regards – employment-minded concerns.

They also noted that these feelings were common among their friends, claiming that humanities majors were “looked down upon” and taken up by students who were “lazy” and “looking for an easy A.” More interestingly, several incoming students did not know that scholars in the humanities did research, thinking that research was only conducted by scientists (!!). From their perspective, taking classes in the humanities meant rote memorization of “dead” facts, and science was the domain were creativity (and fun experimentation) was encouraged.

Lastly, of the handful of sophomores or upperclassmen who took the course (it was open to everyone), many spoke of a particular humanities class or particular teacher they had taken that revealed the intellectual excitement of that discipline.

So what is my biggest takeaway? First, almost all of the preconceptions above were mitigated once students got a better understanding of what the humanities constitutes (object or scope of study and methods of investigation), of the “living” and sometimes contested nature of humanities scholarship, and of how genuinely excited scholars were of their research, and of the opportunity for students to deeply engage their own research interests (some self-determinism is a powerful motivating tool). Moreover, before the summer course, sophomores and upperclassman only changed their perceptions when they encountered a particularly charismatic teacher.

Grist for the Mill: Thus, it is apparent to me as a teacher of religion (at least where I am currently), that I have to explain what I do as a scholar of the humanities, why I do it, and offer the opportunity for students to experience something similar. It has also been my experience that my excitement for research and resolving my research questions is contagious, which is only amplified when the students have a degree of determining their own research agendas. Admittedly, these are not novel insights. They are approaches derived from a constructivist theory of learning which broadly include methods of student-centered learning and cognitive apprenticeship. Nevertheless, it goes beyond simply having one lecture on the importance of the humanities – it goes into the conceptual structure, classroom activities, and means of student assessment for the entire course.


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.