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Office of University Writing

Office of The Provost


Office of University Writing

Office of The Provost

Motivating Deeper Learning

Motivating students to learn can be a challenge. Many students want good grades, but don’t see much connection between the things they are asked to learn, especially in foundational courses, and the goals they have for their futures. In such cases, the work professors ask students to do is too often seen as “busy work” and what learning students do achieve is superficial and not well retained. In this month’s video we hear one strategy for improving student learning and strengthening their understanding of content material that has worked for Elaine Coleman, Associate Professor of Veterinary Anatomy and Neuroscience.

As Dr. Coleman explains, beginning with real world cases can motivate students to learn basic concepts and information and do so with a deeper level of understanding than they would otherwise. One reason these problem-based approaches work is because giving students a context for the information they need to learn creates a way to connect pieces of information together and move from just rote memorization to application, a higher level of cognition. Problems or cases also help students understand why the information they are being asked to learn is relevant to their long-term goals or useful in the real world. In short, activating interest prompts motivation to learn, and deeper learning means information is more likely to be retained.

A problem-based approach can be used in traditional lecture courses and in courses using more active learning strategies. Professors often pose a problem as the starting point of a writing assignment, providing students with a situation that they can analyze or about which they can offer judgments and conclusions. Often such assignments are directed to an imagined audience like the owner of a construction company, a farmer needing advice, or a clinician needing to create a treatment plan for a particular patient. At other times, problem-based assignments ask students to work in communities or collaborate to create resources that reach beyond the classroom. These real world writing assignments can also help students practice the forms of writing they will need in their careers whether those are executive summaries, memos, patient notes, or position papers. As we’ve explained in earlier postings, providing students with an audience to write for, the genre or form the writing needs to use, and a purpose for writing helps them master the domains of knowledge that any writing task requires while they simultaneously master the content knowledge of the discipline.

Dr. Coleman, like many of the other faculty featured in WriteBites Online, has contributed her work to the annual Conversations in Celebration of Teaching (CCT). This year’s CCT will take place on Friday, January 27 from 12:30-3:30 at the Alumni Center. CCT, a program we host jointly with the Biggio Center, focuses on conversations across disciplines about all kinds of teaching-related issues. Faculty come for as much of the afternoon as they can fit into their schedules, but because we want to be certain to have enough food, please register to join us. Registration closes soon.

If you haven’t tried a problem-based approach before or if you’re trying to frame a writing assignment that includes a real-world situation, we’re happy to help you brainstorm possibilities or locate examples from your discipline. Contact us for a consultation.

If you’re looking for a good source of material to help you connect your writing assignments with real world issues, faculty, students, and staff now have full complimentary access to, thanks to a university-wide subscription. Click here for instructions on how to create a New York Times user account.

Want more help with designing writing assignments or helping students improve their writing? Have an assignment or strategy you want to share with others? Contact us, we’re here to help.