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April 2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Motivating Students to Learn: Stories, Questions and Students' Names
Mr Philip David Reece
Deputy Program Chair (Commerce)
Murdoch University, Rockingham Regional Campus
Perth, Western Australia

It is the responsibility of a teaching academic to impart to his students more than just knowledge alone. It is an integral part of the teaching process that academics impart the joy of learning to their students such that the sheer love of learning becomes an intrinsic motivator for them to excel for themselves. This can be rather loosely defined as 'Motivation'.

In examining the reasons why our students attend university and learn, a consistently cited reason is the economic advantages acquiring a degree can confer on them. This is what I call 'doing a Jerry Maguire': "Show me the money!" This is still one of the major extrinsic reasons for studying at university. However, should it be the sole reason for them doing so? If our students are never presented with the love of learning, then they will learn mainly because the outcomes associated with it are desirable, even if the process is not; and many will accept the option of merely passing but not excelling. Nonetheless, how can we motivate students to love learning?

The first thing we, as an academic community, have to do in motivating students to learn is to offer our students valid and meaningful reasons and outcomes for attending our lectures, tutorials, workshops or seminars. If we do not, then why should they attend? The number of times I, in my undergraduate years, attended lectures that were so boring that the academic was a contender for an Olympic gold medal for monotony are simply too numerous to recount. Merely having a lecturer stand in front of an audience for two hours and read notes does not constitute teaching. Teaching is both a skill and an art that needs to be practised and developed in such a way as to attract students willingly into our lectures. This means that we need to utilise our capacity as storytellers to impart not merely knowledge but understanding into both the minds and the hearts of our students. Story telling, the oldest of human methods of communication, is still as valid today as it was in the pre-historical societies that formed the basis of our literate ones today.

I will recount a simple story that carries a very clear message. In business, the most difficult concept to sell to a client is a service agreement; something for which they pay money and yet do not receive anything tangible in return. To get a client to agree to it is the most difficult part of all. One salesman used a very simple method to get agreement. He simply asked the client if they understood what was involved and, rather than ask them if they would sign, asked a simple question, "When you sign this agreement, whose pen would you like to use: yours or mine?" He would then proffer his pen and the client would either use it or use his own pen; so the decision was not whether to sign, but whose pen would he use. Thus, the little decision carried the big one. So, storytelling allows for large abstract and complex theoretical issues to be retold in simpler easier terms that then allow the students to make their own connections.

The purpose of telling any story is not to give them the answer, but for them to apply the story and discern the answer for themselves by means of our well-thought-out questions. Thus, the next step in being an effective storyteller is to have questions, worked out in advance, that encourage the audience to answer. In my own teaching, I would try to give new or uncertain students the opportunity to answer my question but do so without them suffering the consequences of failure. I would often ask a question to the whole class. That way, they all have to think of the possible answer and then, I would ask a specific individual. If this individual is uncertain, I will give him a 'yes or no', 'true or false' scenario; if he does not give me the answer I want, I then invite him to try again and praise him when he gives the expected answer. Whether students give me the expected answer at the first or second try I always praise them for having a go. Why?

It is important to keep your stories simple, but more importantly they need to be designed and told in such a way that allows the students to build up their confidence in their ability to learn. By praising students, even when they do not give the answer you expect or want, it allows their confidence to be built up and to grow. This in turn reinforces the joy of learning, as the desire to learn is fanned by a sense of achievement by being successful. By being lavish with your praise, at least in the early days, it allows you to build another important factor into your teaching—your rapport with your students.

One way to both quickly and effectively build a lasting rapport with your students is to know each of them by name. The effectiveness of this simple practice cannot be over-emphasised. I teach on a small campus, where I am the only full-time staff member and so I teach five different units in the course of an academic year. Hence, I often have the same student in the different units, even up to four times. So, from semester to semester, I try to remember each of their names. Recently, one student, who was new to my classes, remarked to me that she was exceedingly impressed that I greeted all my old students as friends and new ones as friends-to-be. She went on to explain that she was worried at first that by knowing her name, she could not escape my questioning. However, she found that me knowing who she was and asking her by name to answer a question gave her a sense of importance, as she knew that she counted as an individual. This, she explained, motivated her to learn.

By motivating students to learn using stories and questions, and knowing students by name, we as teachers can both easily and effectively motivate our students to pass beyond merely being rote learners, to become life-long learners who are motivated and love to learn.

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Inside this issue
Motivating Students by Providing Feedback
Motivating Students to Learn: Stories, Questions and Students' Names
Motivating Students Taking CFM and GER Modules