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InsightMay 16, 2023

Motivating students beyond grades

Diana Varma RGD and Julia Forrester

Drawing from their own experiences, Diana Varma RGD and Julia Forrester tell us how lasting motivation comes from a sense of community.

Think about a time when you were part of a really great team. This could be a sports team, a group of volunteers, a work environment or your family. What made it a great experience?

Very likely you felt connection, support and camaraderie among the group and it’s within these ideal conditions that we can best learn and grow, becoming better versions of ourselves. It’s through this community-building – established on the foundations of trust and working towards a shared goal – that transformation is possible.

In thinking about teaching, how can we take our experiences of community-building from outside the classroom and make the same magic happen inside the classroom?

In the following article about motivating students through community-building, you’ll hear two points of view about fostering belonging. You'll first read the perspective of Design Educator Diana Varma RGD, for whom the motivational binary of ‘dangling carrots’ and ‘threatening sticks’ has never felt quite right. Next, you’ll read the perspective of recent OCAD MDes graduate Julia Forrester, who completed her degree in a time of heightened disconnection and how intentional classroom connection made all the difference to her overall experience.

Diana Varma RGD, Design Educator

For a long time, I believed that there were only two motivational tools in my toolkit: carrots (high grades, bonus marks, attendance marks, trips, opportunities) and sticks (penalties, failure, fear of missing out, resulting in feelings of guilt and shame).

Reflecting on my own experiences in elementary school, one of my strongest memories involved a literal carrot (well, a trip to McDonald’s) awarded to three grade 5 students in my class who read the most books. I read more that year than I ever had or perhaps ever will again, but not for the joy of reading; for the joy of McNuggets. I can almost guarantee that I wasn’t processing what I was reading or taking pleasure in it. I was a competitive kid who wanted nothing more than to grab that dangling carrot hanging right in front of my face.

In my time teaching at the university level, the binary motivational tools of carrots and sticks have never felt quite right. I originally embraced these traditional tools because “that’s how it’s always been done” and “it’s the only thing I know”, but as I’ve grown into the role, I’ve searched for more. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the last year and a half exploring how to boost creative confidence, which has reaffirmed my desire to move beyond external rewards and punishments. What if there was another way? A more meaningful and less stressful way to motivate students?

I’ve grown to believe that this third space is rooted in community.

Before I continue, it’s important to identify that there are two relevant paths of inquiry at the forefront:

  • The validity of traditional grading systems at-large, and
  • Ways to motivate students, irrespective of the presence or absence of grades.

I will focus on the latter and save my thoughts on the former for a future discussion.

Motivating students through building community is important but not always easy. It can require the decentralization of any one individual in favour of a collective vision at the centre of the classroom experience. Therefore, one of the most challenging aspects of motivating beyond sticks and carrots is releasing control. Incentivizing through grades alone means that the power lies with the instructor, delivered through a one-way monologue to students. When community-building becomes the primary motivational tool, the power is distributed to everyone in the room, facilitated through a two-way dialogue with students. While the community-building approach can be more challenging because the dynamics and desires of each classroom are different, the intention behind the shift may matter more than the outcome.

One of my very favourite activities to build classroom community occurs within a course entitled ‘Interdisciplinary Innovation’. I ask students to write a ‘Humans of New York’ style piece about a moment of transformation in their lives. It’s up to them how vulnerable they choose to be as they craft a story about themselves and post it to our class discussion forum. Many of the stories shared are heartbreaking, perspective-altering, incredible true tales about losing loved ones, escaping for a better life and moments of failure in formative years. I participate too, sharing a vulnerable story about a deeply personal moment of transformation. In doing so, a shift occurs in the instructor-student power dynamic from top-down to side-by-side. This assignment is the fastest and deepest way to build community I’ve ever experienced, as students are changed through the writing of their own stories and through reading others’ stories.

My final thought is that grades are not what we remember once a course is over. Instead, the sense of belonging to a community — to something larger than our individual selves — is so much more impactful and has the ability to transform us.

Julia Forrester, OCAD MDes Graduate

I started my Master's degree in the fall of 2020, the first fully remote cohort of my program. A group of only 20 or so, we quickly set up an active Slack channel, trying to replicate the camaraderie we had experienced in our undergrads and workplaces or had expected coming into grad school. We set up weekly (virtual) coffee chats where we could talk one-on-one and share the more personal aspects of our lives we often glossed over to save time during in-class breakout rooms or group project meetings.

We were fostering the relationships that would help us build our cohort community. Even if we weren’t the best of friends, we knew that these were the people who could most closely relate to our experiences and empathize with us; the people who were our strongest academic supports. We worked as a collective through our coursework, collaborating on lengthy group assignments, answering each other's questions, sharing notes. We kept each other on track, motivated — and, at times, sane — throughout the semesters.

This support was vital during our more challenging courses. One, in particular, was taught by a professor who, while well-intentioned, took a classic “carrot and stick” approach to the course, fostering intense competition amongst us. While some students were lavished with praise, others were singled out and criticized, seemingly at random. When working on group projects, we were asked to rate each other’s contributions, only to be chastised if everyone received an equal score. For a course that had started with an exercise in vulnerability, in hopes of creating a more open class environment, it was ironic that the result was an environment that felt rather hostile and not conducive to learning. I found myself dreading each class.

By contrast, some of my favourite courses, even when I wasn't particularly interested in the content, were those where the professors sought to be a part of our community or at least, champion it. I’ve joked with others that they were the professors who treated us like people, but it’s true. They were willing to level with us and be vulnerable or open about their lives, while also getting to know us more personally. In doing so, they broke down the "us vs them" dynamic. They also recognized the lived and professional experiences each of us brought to the course in addition to their own expertise and created opportunities for peer learning, even though that meant giving up some authority over the class.

On the surface, it might seem silly to think that something as simple as taking 10 minutes out of your class to openly engage with your students could make them more motivated to come to class and actively participate, but, in my experience, it makes all the difference.


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