Video discussion

The Science of Motivation: Interview with Sarah Rose Cavanagh

Niya Bond

Niya Bond

Sarah Rose Cavanagh

Sarah Rose Cavanagh

In this video, Sarah Rose Cavanagh and Niya Bond discuss the science of motivation and the importance of looking after ourselves in pursuit of motivating our students.

– Hi, everyone. I’m Niya Bond, the faculty developer at OneHE, and I’m excited to be with you today. I’m here with Sarah Rose Cavanagh who’s going to talk to us about the science of motivation. Welcome, Sarah.

– Oh, thank you for having me.

– So I’ll give a brief bio. Sarah is the Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning and the Center for Faculty Excellence at Simmons University in the USA, where she also teaches in the psychology department as an Associate Professor of Practice. And she continues collaborations developed in her postdoc years with an ongoing appointment as a research associate in the Emotion, Brain and Behavior Lab at Tufts.

– Great.

– So all of that expertise, I’m sure relates to what we’re going to be talking about today, which is, again, the science of motivation. I’m hoping we can start with just some general conversation about why it’s important for educators to know about the science of motivation.

– Sure. Well, I think about motivation as the energy and the direction that really undergirds all of human behavior, and all of human behavior very much includes learning. And as educators, presumably, we are there to facilitate student learning. And so if we want students to learn more deeply and more effectively, then we should be thinking about how to motivate them, how to energize them, and how to point them in the right direction. And I think if we think about energizing student motivation, especially intrinsic forms of motivation, then they’re going to work harder with more focus, with more enthusiasm, and it’s just natural that they’re going to learn more. And so I think that’s kind of the global answer, but there’s also a really extensive literature on different pedagogical choices in the classroom and those that are associated with better and worse student motivation. And so that is the more specific answer why we should care, I think, as educators.

– Wonderful. And you mentioned intrinsic motivation and I’m hoping we can talk a little bit about what that means for students and how that might play out in teaching and learning interactions.

– Yeah, sure. So motivation researchers love to categorize things. I guess it’s a occupational hazard of psychology in general. And one of the ways that motivation researchers categorize or think about the different sources of motivation is with this dichotomy of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. And if you dive a little deeper, a little under the surface into the theory and the research, you’ll see that it’s not really such a clear cut dichotomy, that there are lots of forms of motivation that exist on this continuum of extrinsic to intrinsic.

But we do think about extrinsic as external to the self. And often that is categorized as kind of the carrots and sticks of motivation, the reasons why we do things for external rewards or the fear of punishment. And intrinsic motivation more relates to personal interest, personal pleasure. And we know that intrinsic motivation blooms when students’ psychological needs are being met and when they feel inherently interested in a topic.

– Perfect. And that inherent interest, I’m wondering if part of the science of motivation is kind of sharing the how and why of how we’re gonna be engaging students and just kind of candid with them about the approach.

– Sure. And I think that other ways that we can really inspire some intrinsic motivation is to choose topics and help students choose topics and assignments that they see value in. And so, so much of intrinsic motivation is about whether or not you see something as valuable and whether or not you think you’re going to be effective at learning it or developing that skill. And so we can highlight the inherent value of material by relating it to student interests, to what’s going on in a society and the world in general, to some transcendent purpose, how we’re going to use this information to actually make the world a better place, how they might use these skills in their future career. So those are all different ways we can help students tag or see the value in the material that we’re asking them to tackle.

The other piece is really the effectiveness, the self-efficacy. And so students might see the value in a given skill or bin of content and know that it relates to their interests or the world’s interests. But if they don’t have any hope or estimation that they will effectively learn that material, then they’re not going to be intrinsically motivated. So I think that that’s another place where we can step in as facilitators of learning and help students develop feelings of competence, of self-efficacy and of autonomy.

– Wonderful. Thank you so much. As we think about this concept more broadly and then narrow down to maybe some practicalities, do you have any suggestions for educators who are interested in kind of implementing the science of motivation? Any ways that they might start using these strategies with learners?

– Sure. And I think in terms of doing some background reading, the literature and self-determination theory, which I kind of dig into in the One Higher Ed resource, is a really potent source of information. And there’s a lot of literature on self-determination theory as applied to the classroom. And that’s a theory that just argues a lot of what we were just talking about, about intrinsic motivation. And that intrinsic motivation kind of soars when students are… their psychological needs of economy, relatedness, and competence are met. I think in terms of practicalities, some things that people can try in the classroom is first tapping into that need for autonomy by highlighting and thinking intentionally about the value, and having those conversations with your students, making it part of your assignment presentations, your assignment sheets, and making it really transparent to students that this is not busy work, that there’s a reason and a value for this material.

I think the second thing that we can do is really think deeply about shaping our feedback and our grading practices to develop that sense of self-efficacy and competence. And I’m part of a big research project on PIFA Grant from the National Science Foundation that involved talking to a lot of instructors from all over the country. And what they were telling us is that they were most dissatisfied with their feedback practices, that they saw the most room for improvement there. And I think that feedback is so critical for students feeling that sense of competence, as long as there’s then an opportunity, another opportunity, right, to demonstrate or to incorporate that feedback. So I think helping and shaping feedback practices.

And then, finally, setting goals with your students. We’ve been focusing more on intrinsic motivation, but I think goal setting and goal striving is also an area where so many scientists have developed really wonderful and tested really wonderful approaches to how we can help people achieve their goals, and what are we doing in the classroom if not chasing some learning goals together with our students? And so I think tapping into goal setting research can also be effective.

– Thank you. Those were very insightful points. I especially liked the point about goal setting. I think it’s a nice way to personalize the learning experience, but also come together as a community, like you said, set those goals together, you know? Yeah. Well, we always like to give our expert the final word in these interviews, so I’m wondering if you have anything that you’d like to share that you think might be important, and it can be a recommended read, a quote, just an idea to leave the community with.

– Sure. I think that what I wanna leave the community with is this idea about fostering intrinsic motivation. So much of it is being as the instructor, enthusiastic, energetic, and passionate, and interested and intrinsically motivated ourselves. And I kind of dug into the science of that in my new book, “Mind Over Monsters.” How do we get there? And really it’s all about kind of physical wellness and rest and nutrition and spending time with social others and feeling like we’re embedded in this fabric that supports us. And so I think that we tend as really student-centered instructors to burn ourselves out in trying to be the best teacher that we can be. And I think that we shouldn’t judge ourselves for that, but I think that we can sometimes do as much for our students by taking care of ourselves and taking a step back and making sure that our needs, our physical and emotional needs are being met so that we can then also be enthusiastic and supportive for them.

– I appreciate that point about care and being kind to ourselves too. Well, I wanna thank you so much for your time today. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you. And I hope, everyone, if they haven’t already checked out your OneHE course and your publications, can go ahead and do that. We’ve got that wonderful Science of Motivation course in our community. And as you mentioned, you have a recent publication. Can you just remind everyone of the title one more time?

– It’s called “Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge.”

– Perfect. Well, thanks so much, Sarah.

– Oh, thank you.

In this video, Niya Bond (Faculty Developer, OneHE) talks to Sarah Rose Cavanagh (Center for Faculty Excellence at Simmons University, USA) about different types of motivation and what they mean for your students, as well as practical strategies for implementing in the classroom.

If you want to learn more about this topic, why not take Sarah’s course on Applying the Science of Motivation to Teaching.

Here are 3 strategies for energising your students’ motivation:

  • Discuss motivation in the classroom. You can incorporate this discussion into assignments or class activities, prompting students to reflect on their own sources of motivation. This process can involve discussing the relevance of their study to their future careers and personal growth, ensuring that they see the value in what they are working towards.
  • Set clear goals and provide frequent feedback. Collaboratively establish clear and achievable goals for students’ learning outcomes. Consider learning about Appreciative Inquiry (AI)-Based Feedback.
  • Look after yourself. To effectively motivate your students, you need to be well nourished, rested, and motivated yourself. Share personal anecdotes or tips on how you maintain your own well-being to inspire your students to do the same.


What is one change you can make to your teaching practice to increase student motivation?

Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.