On motivation: you had my interest, but now you have my attention

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Silviu Piros

Barbora’s chapter provokes from the onset: ‘It Takes Two to Tango: How to get IR students engaged in their learning’. First, it provokes the reader to shift attention from a teacher-centred to a student-centred approach to delivering education. Second, it challenges the reader to consider innovation not for the sake of just ‘doing things differently’, but to solve an ever-growing real-life problem – in this case – increasingly lower attention spans and rapidly waning engagement levels. Finally, it encourages the reader to take own charge by equipping him both with a practical DIY-kit of how the design of such a course could look like, as well as critically observing and empirically evaluating its results.

The academic community is now giving a more attention to student motivation and engagement in the classroom. The instant and constant access to a ubiquitous mass of information has in turn diminished attention spans and the ‘digital natives’ or ‘Gen Z’ – who are now starting their undergraduate studies – are being the most affected group.

Continuously focusing for 90 minutes during a classic lecture, as well as thorough note-taking are becoming serious challenges undergraduate students are often struggling with.

On this backdrop, Barbora reveals her tri-fold challenge that required an innovative approach: to teach an optional course on a perceivably ‘exotic’ topic (Arctic Geopolitics), with an only pass/fail grade, to a mixed cohort of bachelor students with variable affinities and interest in the subject. Her approach aimed at systematically tackling all these perceived weaknesses through a strategy that would gradually shift students’ extrinsic motivation in the course (i.e. the engagement delivered through topic and classroom activities) with genuine intrinsic motivation (that is driven from within).

Thus, she designed and developed her course based on three pillars: expert skype lectures, in-class group work, and interactive mini-lectures. With this mix of methods, the danger of losing students’ interest and engagement in a 90-minute lecture was skirted, as each of the three components brought a different angle while keeping everybody constantly involved: be it through practical Q&As in the expert sessions, interaction with the course convenor in the mini-lectures, or peer interaction during group work.

The effort associated with building such a curriculum is praiseworthy. The risks associated with it, make is so even more.

The technology-enabled expert sessions are a great tool for creating momentum on a theme, and exposing students to real-life scenarios, however the failure of technology on the spot, or the sudden unavailability of the expert will have a serious  impact on the overall outcome of the course and will impact negatively motivation levels, and therefore it needs to be factored in.

Similarly – and this is something the chapter considers – the importance of design in the group activity and the pitfalls of failing to keep students engaged during the group sessions should not be overlooked.

What makes this chapter a great and commendable reading is indeed its openness. Openness to challenge, to change, to reconsider. The key message Barbora conveys throughout this chapter is straightforward: the ever-changing needs of our students drive teaching and learning innovation, and with the right amount of commitment and determination, each new provocation will make for a great opportunity to move things forward.