Motivate Your Students Like a Trainer

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Tuesday, August 30, 2022
By Max Dolinsky
Photo by iStock/martin-dm
The fitness industry knows how to motivate us in the gym. Let’s use its methods to motivate our students in the classroom.
  • As educators, we should adopt the practices of personal trainers, who view it as their job to help cultivate motivation in their clients.
  • Like trainers, we should recognize that behavior-based goals are stronger motivators for our students than outcome-based goals.
  • We should provide students opportunities to learn from their mistakes, allowing them to retake quizzes, turn in assignments for extra credit, or even complete projects after deadlines have passed.

Imagine being out of shape (many of us don’t have to imagine). You decide to get fit, so you drop thousands of dollars on an expensive gym membership and a personal trainer. After two weeks, your trainer informs you that you lack motivation and foundational skills. Before you take a group class, the trainer tells you not to expect much accommodation, because the instructor sets the bar high and focuses on the top 10 percent. If you can’t work out at that level, the trainer tells you, that’s too bad. You should cancel your membership or come to use the gym’s sauna instead.

Even if you don’t have any experience with personal trainers, this scenario should sound absurd to you. I can assure you that such a scenario is rare. In fact, trainers at my current gym welcome amputees and other adaptive athletes, encouraging them to work out side by side with other athletes who can run five-minute miles.

Not so in higher ed, where we are often unforgiving of students’ lack of skills or motivation. To be fair, most of us will be patient with struggling students who are working hard. But when students lack motivation, we might blame them or view them as “lazy.” We like to treat our students’ motivation as a predetermined constant, rather than as something we should cultivate.

That’s something good personal trainers never do—there’s nothing to be gained by it.  On the contrary, they view boosting their clients’ motivation as a key part of their job. They see the irony of the situation: People who are bursting with drive might not hire trainers in the first place. So, if their clients lack motivation, trainers look to themselves and ask how they can do their jobs better.

What practices can we borrow from the fitness industry to enliven our classrooms? Below are nine possibilities.

1. Rethink Arbitrary Deadlines

Good trainers would not ask you “to complete a workout by midnight.” Rather, they would propose a time that fits into your schedule. Deadlines are good motivators, but not if their timing is poor. (And I don’t know of any professors who want to receive assignments by midnight so they can start grading in the middle of the night.)

Instead, why don’t we reverse-engineer the process? Let’s first determine the best time for students to make their final push on the task, and then set the deadline accordingly. Personally, I set deadlines either for 7 p.m. to give students time to unwind and prepare for the next day or for noon to give them a chance to wake up early and finish strong.

Or, if you believe that students are most productive late at night, consider setting deadlines for 6 a.m. the following morning. Setting an arbitrary midnight deadline will only cause many students to finish their work in a panic, like Cinderella before the clock strikes 12.

2. Value Starting Points and Reward Input

Why do trainers give the same positive reinforcement to athletes who complete five-minute miles as they do to stragglers who take twice as long to complete the same distance? Because they understand that it’s their mission to help their clients improve, not to assess their clients’ performance like referees.

Yet, in our classrooms, we are naturally inclined to praise strong students who give the right answers while barely trying, but fail to recognize those struggling souls who are giving it all they’ve got. Imagine being in a fitness class where hitting your personal best deadlift is ignored because someone twice your size can easily lift more!

Be the educator who pushes students to reach their personal best.

3. Shift Toward Behavior-Based Goals

When you want to lose 10 pounds, personal trainers know that asking you to set the goal of losing 10 pounds is ineffective. In fact, if you do not see a change on the scale, for whatever reason, such a goal can be demotivating.

Instead, good trainers recognize that behavior-based goals are stronger motivators than outcome-based goals. They ask you to drink a half gallon of water a day or go to the gym three times a week. They focus you on the path to weight loss, not on the weight loss itself. This approach is empowering, because it gives you a greater sense of control, which boosts your drive to reach your goals.

Good trainers recognize that behavior-based goals are stronger motivators than outcome-based goals. They focus you on the path to weight loss, not on the weight loss itself.

This practice translates directly into the classroom. For example, I witnessed a spike in student motivation when I implemented specifications grading, which largely focuses on behavior-based goals. But even when we use traditional grading, we can add more input-based checkpoints through our homework, worksheets, and projects. Students will rise to the challenge, and their efforts will help them reach their goals.

4. Encourage Continuous Effort

As children, most of us read Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. But even after we learn about the hare’s downfall, we spend the rest of our lives adopting—or at least humoring—the hare’s programming. Imagine if personal trainers allowed you to put off training until the last minute and pull an all-nighter right before an assessment day. Athletes know that maintaining a consistent training regimen is superior to completing sporadic, scattered sessions.

So, rather than assign students one major term project, let’s instead break up that project into a series of deliverables. Let’s incentivize consistent effort over last-minute performance.

5. Work in a Warm-up

“Don’t warm up, don’t stretch, we got a busy day; let’s jump straight into some heavy squats!” said no coach, ever.

True, there’s little danger that our students will pull a muscle solving a business problem. Even so, we shouldn’t expect them to begin an in-depth discussion without preparation any more than we should expect them to set a personal record without stretching.

Have you ever wondered why students are lively during some classes and like zombies during others? Often, they are disengaged because we skipped the warm-up. For instance, I find that my students are more energetic if I start the class with a quick deliverable or Poll Everywhere quiz.

The fitness industry knows that action leads to motivation, not the other way around. We, too, should be mindful and intentional in the way we start each class. The first three to five minutes of class set the tone for all the minutes that follow.

6. Provide Immediate Feedback

If a trainer waited a month, or even a week, to give you feedback about your form and technique, it would be unhelpful. You are likely to be less receptive to stale feedback because it has less relevance to your current status—when that happens, you naturally lose interest.

Delayed feedback in sports would be unnatural and unproductive. And, yet, in education, delayed feedback is the norm. We can make one simple improvement: We can grade faster.

The value of grading in a timely manner goes beyond satisfying student curiosity. It helps them learn. Fortunately, we have many tools to assist us, such as the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique, online quizzes with immediate grading, or even self-grading.

7. Make Students Accountable

One factor that determines whether athletes succeed is whether they are held accountable by their coach, or at least by a peer. In my own fitness, I discovered the motivational power of accountability when my coaches tracked my progress toward goals—whether it was drinking 80 ounces of water daily or coming to the gym three times a week—through simple but regular weekly check-ins. I was stunned by the incredible drive these check-ins sparked in me, as well as by the results that followed.

Motivation by accountability is a powerful concept, which educators can implement in many ways. We can collect worksheets even if they aren’t graded. We can remind students we miss them when they are absent, even if attendance is optional. We can get struggling students to commit to completing their work in advance and then follow up with them.

Providing immediate feedback assists us here as well, because it helps us make students feel accountable for their short-term input and subsequent progress.

No matter what approach to accountability we take, we should strive to send the same key message to students: Your professor notices you and cares about your success. It’s not always about the grade.

8. Create a Pleasant Learning Environment

In his popular book Atomic Habits, James Clear makes this recommendation for how we can motivate ourselves to complete a difficult task: Make it attractive. Think of your last great workout—there was likely some aspect of your environment that gave you a warm fuzzy feeling, whether it was a grand yoga mat, trendy workout shorts, beautiful nature trail, or even just a sentimental tumbler. Realistically, our performance shouldn’t be influenced by such simple factors. But by making our external environment more pleasant, these things can have a surprising effect on our motivation.

Making mistakes, receiving feedback, and repeating work are powerful ways for our students to learn. Why wouldn’t we want to offer second chances to our students?

Similarly, we can affect students’ motivation by attending to the details of our classroom environments. We can be sure to know students’ names, lay out a clear timeline for every module, and organize class files in an accessible format. We can improve lighting and sound (especially for virtual classrooms). We can open the blinds if there’s a gracious view outside. We can adopt play-to-learn strategies, so that students look forward to class.

Great trainers get this. By paying attention to the environment, educators also can go the extra mile to set the scene for student success.

9. Allow Second Chances

I always felt unsettled by the idea that we should deny any student’s request to redo an assignment or retake a quiz. I know that when I struggle to master a skill, my trainers always encourage me to try more, not less. Isn’t the goal to learn from our mistakes? 

In fact, failure is an integral part of the educational process. Making mistakes, receiving feedback, and repeating work are powerful ways for our students to learn. Why wouldn’t we want to offer second chances to our students? 

Offering second chances is a key principle of specification grading, but we also can infuse second chances in regular assignments. For instance, we can allow students to retake quizzes or complete additional assignments for extra credit. We can offer feedback on projects before they’re due. If students miss a deadline, we can even allow them to complete the project or quiz anyway.

On the other hand, we should not allow students to drop their lowest-scoring quiz or exam. Such a practice offers students no opportunity for a second chance and does nothing to help them master the material.

Embrace Your Power to Motivate

After implementing most of the practices above, which I have learned from working with many trainers myself, I’ve experienced phenomenal success in getting students to feel motivated. In fact, now that my students know my principles, they’ll often ask for more work to help them master the material—and raise their grades.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. The fitness industry has other tactics that we could borrow for higher education. What’s important is that we stop thinking of motivation as a constant variable or precursor for learning. Rather, we must use strategies to motivate our students, regardless of their initial motivation or skill level.

So, motivate like a trainer! You won’t just educate students more effectively. You’ll also help them increase their own motivation, build healthier habits, and improve their lives beyond your course.

I dedicate this article to my many coaches, particularly Mike Espinosa and Conner Edelbrock.
Max Dolinsky
Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Finance Major Professional Development, Warrington College of Business, University of Florida
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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