BYU students say their academic motivation declined in 2020

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Students have noticed a decrease in their academic motivation. (Photo illustration by Preston Crawley)

Hundreds of BYU students have noticed a decrease in motivation after COVID-19 shut down a lot of normal routines without warning.

Online classes, as well as the lack of personal interaction with peers and professors, are some reasons they feel less motivated in their school work.

Several students admitted they noticed a sense of decreased motivation during Fall Semester 2020. In a poll on The Daily Universe’s Instagram account, 413, or 85%, of the 485 respondents said they felt their motivation decreased when classes moved online.

Students have experienced a decline in motivation as classes moved online, according to a poll on The Daily Universe’s Instagram account. (Thomas Madrigal)

Ryker Steiner, a BYU chemical engineering student, said he feels like the lectures he has aren’t an experience anymore, but instead just another piece of material he has to go through.

BYU student Lane Gibbons also said she has felt noticeably less motivated this semester. “The absence of in-person classes really makes it hard to feel committed to the material and to the work,” Gibbons said. “Classes don’t really feel real, the discussions feel more superficial. And yet, the assignments and the tests and the grades are very real.”

Anna Cunningham, a BYU student from California, said she also felt a decreased sense of motivation compared to other semesters. “I’m like still getting everything done, but I know that I’m not doing my readings as thoroughly as I probably could be,” she said.

Other effects

Gibbons said she also feels like part of the reason for her motivation decreasing could be because of the impending doom of the pandemic everyone is facing. “There’s something about that overarching feeling of dread and uncertainty.”

Rick West, a BYU professor in the instructional psychology and technology department, said he has noticed some of his students struggling since the pandemic started back in March, but it’s hard to know if that’s because of the way the class is taught online or if it’s more related to other effects of the pandemic. “There are a lot of emotional challenges that have been heightened with COVID.”

Julie Preece, licensed psychologist and faculty member in the BYU academic support office, said a big issue is the fact that students who wouldn’t normally be signing up for online classes have no choice, therefore they are getting a completely different experience than what they expected.

“Suddenly a student is thrust in a very different kind of world than what their routine was,” Preece said. “That can bring some shock, some confusion, some disappointment and fear. I think all those things can impact motivation.”

According to Psychology Today, a student’s lack of online experience may promote fear, leading to doubts and uncertainty for students and teachers. “These doubts can cause withdrawal or resistance to participation. One solution to sustain motivation is not to lose the personal connection that already exists between teachers and students.”

Relationships online

Cunningham said for her a big part of classes was the five minutes in between when she could talk to her classmates and professors, but now there isn’t that time. “You just kind of miss that organic communication when it’s a scheduled Zoom meeting that starts and ends in an hour period.”

Gibbons said she has also missed being able to have that time in between classes. “I am one who would always stay after class and talk with the professors and ask questions and just get to know them,” she said. “It’s been really weird not talking with them on an outside of class context.”

Although building relationships online is different, Charles Graham, a BYU professor in the instructional psychology and technology department, said there’s no reason why students and teachers can’t develop relationships in an online class.

“I think part of the challenge is that this is new to a lot of students and it’s new to a lot of faculty. So, students haven’t learned how to develop those relationships in the online space, and faculty are still learning and developing their ability to encourage those,” Graham said. “That kind of thing is just as possible in the online space, but it might be a little bit more difficult for teachers to implement because they’re not familiar with the tools; they haven’t done it before and the whole environment’s new for them.”

Class design

Although there are several reasons why students’ motivation is decreasing, West and Graham said the decrease in motivation has less to do with the fact that classes are being held online, and more about the design of the class itself.

“Students need to be patient with instructors because their COVID teaching is not as effective as their normal teaching probably would be,” West said.

In the instructional psychology and technology department, they believe that rather than online learning, a better term to describe the current situation is emergency remote teaching.

“This was an emergency situation and everything went remote and online, and teachers did not have a chance to design it as a true online experience, so instead it’s just crisis teaching,” West said.

Graham said he believes it’s a lot about the method being used to teach the class, not whether the class is in person or remote. “It’s less about whether it’s online or in person, and really about what the teacher is doing to engage the students online,” Graham said.

Although Graham recognizes that some students may be struggling with online classes, he said it’s a blessing to have online learning as a possibility right now.

How to stay motivated

Bryce Bunting, a BYU professor and faculty member in the academic support office, said if students have a hard time with online classes, they should do everything they can to get into in-person classes. “Do what you can to put yourself in a position to be successful.”

Another thing students can do to stay more involved in their classes, according to Preece, is to always keep their Zoom cameras on. “It’s not easy, but it becomes essential,” Preece said. “Once the camera is turned off, people are tempted.”

Some of the temptations Preece mentioned were doing homework for other classes and looking at phones.

Students can also try to be understanding of their teachers. Mike Johnson, a teaching and learning consultant at BYU, said people can try to give each other the benefit of the doubt. “We’re in this together and teachers and students have the same goal,” Johnson said. “If we work together, we can achieve that, and the learning at BYU goes beyond just the outcomes, it’s about becoming better people.”

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