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August 11, 2014

This month’s column is the second part in a series I’ll post every other month or so about how we can apply and see in action the 7 principles of research-based pedagogy described in the excellent book How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose, et al. Last time was knowledge organization. This month’s topic: motivating students, ch. 3 of the book.

Latin and Greek are hard languages to study. Declension, conjugation, rules for subordination, derivation of verbal forms, particles, and vocabulary all require extensive memorization, practice, and integration. The studying won’t do itself, and we language teachers can’t do all the work for our students. One of our key goals and tools, therefore, should be to motivate students to learn, to practice, and to seek mastery of the language skills and content we teach.

Chart explaining how to motivate people to learn

As Ambrose and her co-authors explain, motivation in teaching rests principally on affirmative answers to three questions. Does the student feel that the class environment is supportive? Does the student feel like s/he is able to achieve success in the course? And does the student consider the course worthwhile? These three ingredients — environment, self-efficacy, and value — make or break student learning. For successful, motivated learning, students need to find support from not only the instructor but also their fellow students; to believe that their efforts, if sufficient and properly directed, will result in good outcomes; and to value the course enough that they want to succeed.

The effects of these factors on motivation to learn are interactive, as the chart to the right, from How Learning Works, shows. (I have this chart printed out and posted on the wall of my office, right beside my desk.) The technical formulation of this interactive relationship is “expectancy theory,” familiar to students of business, the nonprofit sector, and human-resources management. When the three dynamics aren’t all working towards motivation, students are likely to develop a negative disposition toward learning in the course.

If students don’t see the value in the course and don’t think that they’re capable of succeeding, they will tend to reject the course (and possibly behave uncivilly in the classroom, if they show up at all), while if they feel capable but don’t see the value, they will be evasive, doing the merest amount of work possible to get by. Students who do see value and feel capable but don’t perceive the environment as supportive will take a go-it-alone attitude, possibly including expressions of resentment at the teacher, while students in an unsupportive environment who value the course but don’t have a sense of self-efficacy will simply give up. Finally, students valuing the subject and feeling supported but lacking self-efficacy will be fragile, which might lead them to pretend that they understand when they do not, or to avoid participation in class. It is only when all three components are working in concert that motivation to learn is reached.

Many strategies for fostering self-efficacy and a supportive environment boil down to the theme of clear, explicit presentation of the learning process. We should make our expectations for overall goals and for specific assignments clear, and we should explain how the work we assign actually connects to our course goals; key parts of this process include determining the appropriate level of challenge for our learning activities, defining via rubrics how we will assess those activities, and offering study tips tailored to those activities. One particularly potent way to develop self-efficacy in students is through early opportunities to take risks, to fail, to succeed — and, along with those opportunities, through timely feedback. Better weekly quizzes starting at the beginning of the term than two tests, the first of which doesn’t come until midterms! It is also crucial that we try our best to change students’ thinking about learning from theories of talent or luck to a theory of effort: people aren’t good or bad at Latin, but rather they are skilled or unskilled, practiced or unpracticed, hard-working or lacking in the kind of well-placed, substantial effort that leads to success and mastery.

Getting students to see the value in a course — if they do not already value it coming into the term — can be the hardest lever of motivation to pull, so to speak. Ambrose & co. suggest showing your own passion, enthusiasm, and value for the topic, as well as relating the material to student interests, other coursework, and future career tasks. (They also recommend providing “authentic, real-world” assignments, good advice of limited utility for teaching ancient languages, tattoo-parlor consultancies aside.) In other words, to teach most effectively, we need to be eloquent advocates for our field, and for the extradisciplinary rewards of studying Latin or Greek, even at the introductory level. It also means that we might want to think about offering practice sentences or readings that are less remote to students than, say, British descriptions of colonial India, or tokenized, stereotyped depictions of Greek and Roman women (on the latter, see Gruber-Miller in the forthcoming 2014 issue of Cloelia).

Another approach to encourage students to value what we teach is to tie extrinsic rewards to learning effort. If, as students engage with and labor at the coursework, they earn things independently valuable to them — e.g., candy, gold-star stickers, a Graeco-Roman coin, the chance to skip turning in a homework assignment, a special in-class title like Consul or Strategos — then, over time, they may link this extrinsic value with an intrinsic value that they develop for the content of the course itself. Finally, offering students some flexibility and control over their learning experience may prompt them to value it more, and to feel more like they can do well. This can be as simple as allowing choice between questions to answer on a quiz, or as complex as a “designer” assessment structure in which students can choose what assignments to complete from a menu in order to (l)earn the points they need to succeed in the course.

Good teaching necessitates good motivational techniques. We can’t merely present content, especially when that content is something so difficult and daunting as Greek or Latin. By thinking and planning explicitly around the issues of value, support, and self-efficacy, we will improve the quality of our teaching, our courses, our students learning — and, in motivating our students to learn classical languages, we will improve the quality of their lives.


T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Editor-in-Chief of the SCS Blog and Associate Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Satire, Plautus: Curculio, and two forthcoming books, A Commentary on Plautus' Curculio (Michigan) and Masks (Tangent). He can be contacted at