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Find out what motivates students and teachers in the process of learning and teaching as the authors discuss Student Motivation/Teacher Motivation in this issue of CDTL Brief.

March 2004, Vol. 7, No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Driven to Teach
Vandana Ghai
Human Resource Management Specialist
Human Resource Management Unit

“First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense” (Feynman, 1995, pp. xx).

Richard Feynman (1918–1988), winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, was an inspiring teacher. He brought his own idiosyncratic style—a passion for the subject and a mixture of irreverence and disrespect for received wisdom—into teaching. “What came to Feynman by “common sense” were often brilliant twists that captured the essence of his point” (Feynman, 1995, pp. xx). His engaging manner endeared him greatly to the students, especially the younger ones, many of whom idolised him!

Feynman’s lectures were brilliant, deploying all his sparkling wit, penetrating insight, and irreverence that he brought to bear on his research work. When faced with the task of designing a series of lectures to deliver over two years, first to freshmen and then to sophomores, Feynman spent more than two years trying to revolutionise the way beginning physics was taught (Feynman, 1995, pp. xxi).

What was Feynman’s motivation and how did he handle his students’ apathy? Why did he devote so much time to change the way beginning physics was taught? One was that Feynman loved to have an audience (Feynman, 1995, pp. xxii). His passion for the subject and sheer joy from the experience of teaching spurred him on. For Feynman, the lecture hall was a theatre and the lecturer a performer:

“I remember when I was his student, how it was when you walked into one of his lectures. He would be standing in front of the hall, smiling at us as we all came in, his fingers tapping out a complicated rhythm on the black top of the demonstration bench that crossed the front of the lecture hall. As latecomers took their seats, he picked up the chalk and began spinning it rapidly through his fingers in a manner of a professional gambler playing with a poker chip, still smiling as if at some secret joke. And then—still smiling—he talked to us about physics, his diagrams and equations helping us to share his understanding. It was no secret joke that brought the smile and sparkle in his eye, it was physics. The joy of Physics! The joy was contagious” (Feynman, 1985, pp. 9–10).

The other reason was that Feynman genuinely cared about his students and regarded teaching freshmen as an important thing to do. The third and perhaps the most important reason was the sheer challenge of reformulating physics according to his understanding, so that it could be presented to young students (Feynman, 1995, pp. xxii).

There are hurdles that are inherent in any educational system. For example, there has always been consensus among lecturers that students are turned off rather than spurred on by compulsory modules. In addition to the challenge of motivating a (often) large class of disinterested audience who take the module because it is ‘required’, the teacher is faced with the daunting task of inspiring the students to learn. The situation becomes even more demanding if the module only awards a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark instead of grades. The teacher may also lose the motivation to teach if he/she has to teach the same courses repeatedly.

Neither Feynman nor any of us may have a solution. However, I believe effective teaching can take place when the teacher has a direct, individual relationship with the students. An opportunity to interact with students on an individual level often allows the teacher insight into reasons for non-motivation, which may or may not be linked to a lack of interest in the subject. Further, a student’s mental barriers regarding one’s capabilities, personal problems, interpersonal issues with the working team, personality and communication issues and learning styles become increasingly clearer. Once surfaced and tackled, managing the students’ motivation and commitment to the subject could be easier.

The following are some teaching strategies that I have used in my teaching of a compulsory module to motivate the students. My first class is usually spent building rapport with the students. I devote adequate time in the first session to get to know my students by asking them to tell me something about themselves and their expectations of the course. When the students talk about themselves, the topics are endless—final year projects, interests in reading, sports, movies and food. I make it a point to take note of what they say. Through such conversations, I discover amongst my students, writers who willingly share their work with me, enthusiasts of computer games who share websites and projects that stimulated my interest in such games. I usually prefer such a session to icebreakers. Though the latter may bring more laughter, no one is any wiser about the other person at the end of it.

Knowing the students’ expectations of the course gives me an idea about how I may need to conduct my classes. This term (Semester II, AY 2003/2004), almost the entire class said that they had no expectations and all they wanted to do was pass. The students’ comments dampened my spirits. However, I challenged them spontaneously: “How can we give something 13 weeks of our life with only a sense of submission and apathy? We all know it’s a compulsory course, but let’s give it our best shot so that we can really learn something that we can carry with us well beyond this classroom”!

When I am involved in something, I believe in giving my 100% and nothing less. It is an attitude. Time is precious. Thus, if one is giving away a chunk of it for a course, we might as well do it with grit and excel rather than flow along indifferently with the tide of compulsion. These may be ideals but I believe in them and I make sure that they are conveyed to my students. As the course progresses, my passion and interest in the subject gradually ‘infect’ the students.

The experience of teaching is a two-way process. With every new class of students, it’s a new set of vibes, dynamics, challenges and thrills. Looking back at Feynman, his insatiable curiosity, a questioning mind and a strong drive to tackle any subject to the best of one’s ability may be reasons to stay motivated in teaching. Therefore, by keeping the fundamentals of one’s teaching objectives in mind and by striving to explain complex issues in simplified understandable terms in a fresh and dynamic way, one could keep one’s sense of purpose, motivation and commitment alive. However, I am not saying that I have defined a generic formula for teachers to stay motivated. The teaching methods and strategies described above to motivate students are those that have worked most often for me.


Feynman, R.P. (1995). Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics, Explained by its Most Brilliant Teacher. Leighton, R.B. & Sands, M. (Eds.). Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Feynman, R.P. (1985). “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character as told to Ralph Leighton. Hutchings, E. (Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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Motivation for Mandatory Courses
Driven to Teach
On Graduate Students and Teaching