Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What Do Elections and University Lectures Have in Common?

If you said "Ug" or something to that effect, you are not alone. Countless voters and students would agree with you. Making the effort to vote and the prospect of attending large lecture classes engender similar non-plussed reactions in many people.

I have been percolating on a relationship between the challenges of encouraging active, informed participation in a democratic electoral system and the challenges of encouraging active, informed participation in a traditional large college lecture course.

No doubt the alignment popped into my head earlier this month. Not only was it the waning days of a long painful national election, but I was simultaneously onsite with a university team that is developing an innovative model for increasing intrinsic motivation. Their focus is on those huge lecture courses often seen in large public institutions. The electorate, like the student body nationwide, may feel "I'm just a number, what does it matter, I have no real voice". Why bother to pay attention?

All of which leads to an electorate declining to vote, and/or voting without digging into the facts and implications of individual candidates and issues. Similar perhaps to students declining to attend class, and/or turning in homework and projects without truly engaging with them. Cynics stand back! because participation really does matter.


In a local election one's vote can make a visible difference, just as in a small intimate class one's voice will be more easily heard. In neither case will things always come out the way one wants but receiving feedback that one is making a difference often leads to increased intrinsic motivation. More participation follows, more positive learning results.

Some of the similarities don't cross over as well. Small intimate classes tend to be better attended than large impersonal ones, whereas local elections sometimes experience worse turnout than regional or national elections. Of course, attendance in a small class can occur because one loves the class or because one doesn't want to be called out for skipping. Be that as it may, avoiding punishment is an extrinsic motivation and doesn't lead to greater learning for the long haul.

Sad to say, I have no immediate implementable-today suggestions about how to tackle the problem of an electorate that lacks an intrinsic motivation to vote.

However, the educators and researchers I am working with in the Engineering School at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign are creatively tackling the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation challenge in the large lecture class.  For those of you not familiar how tough the situation is, consider these typical factors, which represent only part of the complicated picture around the country:

- Several hundred students are enrolled in a class with just one faculty member assigned to teach the course
- Class meetings are scheduled several times a week in a large impersonal lecture hall
- Smaller breakout sessions (sometimes called labs, study sessions, 'sections') are held once a week, and led by a graduate student teaching assistant
- The faculty member has little formal training in state of the art pedagogical techniques and no resources or ability to seek it out

On the other hand,

- The faculty member truly cares about her or his students' learning and wants students to succeed
- Teaching assistants also care about student learning and may have an eye on a future teaching career
- There is much well supported research about the factors that motivate or demotivate people towards creativity and towards going the extra mile. We know a significant amount about what does and does not encourage intrinsic motivation.
- Much of this research has been conducted on individuals or small groups.

I've given you some big hints about what the team at UIUC is up to. What do you think they might be doing?

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