“How to Motivate Your Students to Love Learning”
I have taught as a university professor and teaching assistant since 1985. I learned many useful lessons from my students and tried some novel approaches to teaching. I eventually won the top teaching awards from Georgia Tech and from the University System of Georgia. Many of my successes in motivating students have to do with getting them involved in the Real World. I share my methods and the good ideas of other progressive teachers and hopefully, make learning more meaningful, fun and effective for all teachers and students.
I believe that any student who is sufficiently motivated will love learning and consequently, learn more. Many of the problems and difficulties that instructors of all types face are related to motivation, or a lack of it. I am a neuroscientist who has been teaching since 1986. I will use both my understanding of the brain and my teaching experience to unpack the complexities of motivation as they relate to teaching and learning. I tried many things to encourage my students to love learning, and some of them eventually became remarkably successful, as you will see from my students’ comments included in this book.
This book is half memoir and half how‑to. My personal stories will reveal how I developed my ideas about teaching and learning. Throughout the book, I will span levels from the philosophical down to the nuts and bolts of how motivation works in the brain and how to implement highly motivating learning experiences in your classroom. I will reveal all of my “secrets” that powerfully motivated my students, hopefully in ways that will allow you to apply them incrementally to your teaching, and in ways that you and the administrators are comfortable with.
Whether in traditional schools, in experimental schools, or homeschooling, quite a few teachers are experimenting with new ideas about how to teach, what to teach, and even why to teach. If you are one of those, or would like to become one, then you will find this book useful. Parents and school administrators may also find this book useful in pointing the way to advocate for changes in the way teaching is done in their schools. I will relate how I came to realize that real‑world projects are the most effective teaching and learning experiences because they are highly motivating, creating excitement and a love of learning in students. Although my teaching was at the university level, most of my approaches are relevant and applicable to learners of all ages, and can be put into practice by instructors of all types. Students of all ages love to come up with projects that they care about, and that make a difference. When such projects are included as part of our regular school curriculum, students become motivated to dive into learning with great enthusiasm. Most importantly, they will be much better prepared to be effective, valuable, and motivated citizens of our rapidly changing world.
Fixing what’s wrong with schooling does not have to occur by disruptive revolutions. You do not need to throw out everything you know about teaching and start with something completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I continually added to my toolbox of unconventional approaches to teaching, while making small tweaks to standard practices that ended up having a large payback in terms of motivating my students to love learning. I advocate an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, approach to improving teaching methods.
I have always been a rebel, forging my own path through life, often with little regard to what was expected from someone in my situation. I came in to teaching “through the back door,” kind of like I did with engineering: I was a professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University for 13 years, yet I studied neither teaching nor engineering for my college degrees. I learned teaching and engineering by doing, while getting my undergraduate degree in biochemistry (University of California, San Diego 1987) and PhD in neurobiology (University of California, Irvine 1993). In many ways, I am a living example of the impact of project‑based learning and a champion for, and product of, unconventional, interdisciplinary learning approaches. Rather than thinking of my lack of teaching credentials as a limitation, I think of it as liberating. My thought process was perhaps less constrained. Like Gumby’s train, I laid my tracks as I went along. My unconventional teaching path led me eventually to win the top teaching award at the Georgia Institute of Technology and then the top teaching award across all research universities in the University System of Georgia.
It is important to realize that my evolutionary process of improving my teaching involved a lot of trial and error. Hoping to spare you some of that pain, I will describe a few of my failures that I re-cast as learning experiences. One of the most important pieces of advice that I will keep repeating is to continually solicit feedback about how things are going and continually try new things. Experimentation is a way of life for me and if you really take that on board, you too are bound to succeed at motivating your students to love learning.