Motivating college students — recognizing learning styles and role of intrinsic & extrinsic motivation

by Jung Won Chun
Ph.D. student, university of Florida


Jung Won Chun

Motivating students is not easy but is one of the most fundamental and important issue in teaching. If students lose their motivation to learn and engage with you as a teacher, they not only aren’t gaining as much as they could from your class but they could become academic discipline problems.

So, the key question is: “How can we motivate students?”

To answer this question, we need to understand different types of motivations. Here are two types of motivation:

Extrinsic motivation

  • Goal-driven: “I need a B to get into law school.”
  • Rewards: “I can earn extra credit if I do well on today’s quiz.”
  • Pressure to perform: “If I flunk this course, I will lose my scholarship.
  • Competition: “I should do a better performance to win the first prize in this project.”
  • Achievement: “I want to earn A for this course.”

Intrinsic motivation

  • Interest: “Readings interest me to learn about this course.”
  • Inherent satisfaction: “I feel good when I succeed in this class.”
  • Competence: “I can increase my competence from the class.”
  • Enjoyment: “I enjoy learning itself.”

Case study: South Korean education and extrinsic motivation

In many cases, extrinsic motivation can help encourage students to study and boost better performance. Let’s take a look at South Korea’s case. In 2014, South Korea was ranked at the first place in terms of college entrance rates and completion rates, according to OECD. This is because higher education is directly related to employment. Among high school students in South Korea, 51% answered getting a job is the biggest reason to study for entering university. The results showed that South Korea’s education is goal-driven so that improve higher performance.

See the video from BBC: “Is South Korean education ‘best in world’?”

However, even though extrinsic motivation enhances students’ performance, it does not always work. According to a survey of freshmen students in Seoul National University, which is the top university in South Korea, students who were only motivated to admit into the university lost their goals after enrolling the school so that showed low performance during an academic year. On the other hand, students who regard learning itself as enjoyable, they set a new goal and showed higher performance. The results revealed that intrinsic motivation is important to encourage students.

Even though the importance of intrinsic motivation has been underscored, it is not easy to intrinsically motivate students. One of the effective ways to increase students’ intrinsic motivation is to consider students’ different learning styles. Each student has a different motivation and different learning style. Some students may be encouraged by readings, but others may be interested through watching visual materials or doing activities by themselves. If we understand students’ different learning style, we can motivate students more effectively.

Determining student learning styles — and your own learning style

Neil D. Fleming’s VARK model is one of the well-known standards to evaluate individuals’ different learning style. There are four parts in VARK model: visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic. Here are some examples in each part:

  1. Visual: Pictures, videos, posters, slides, underlying, different color, highlighters, diagrams
  2. Aural: Discussion, tutorials, using a tape recorder, interesting examples, stories, and jokes
  3. Read/Write: Printed word, definitions, handouts, textbooks, notes, essays, and manuals
  4. Kinesthetic: Laboratories, field trips/tours, examples of principles, real-life examples, applications, hands-on approaches

There is a relevant website to check your students’ different learning style based on VARK model:

You can complete the VARK questionnaire to learn your own learning style. You may find that your learning style is read and write and realize that your structuring of your classes is based on reading and writing. However, if students have different learning style, they may lose their interest and motivation toward your class; because their learning style is away from reading. It is easy to overlook that your students’ learning styles are different from your learning style.

Thus, understanding students’ different learning styles can be an initial step to encourage students. If you check your students’ learning style early in the semester, you can manage your class more effectively by mixing those four learning styles.

Even though how to motivate students is a question that cannot be easily answered, you may approach to the right answer by understanding different motivation and different learning styles. You can think about the way of incorporating different modes of communication to serve a range of learners and the way of determining how to structure your teaching and class assignments.

Jung Won Chun is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930).

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