The mile-high (virtual) stack of ungraded finals on my “desk” attests to the way the holiday season takes my motivation (admittedly always a lil precarious) and tosses it off of the sheer side of a cliff. While I wait for it to hit the bottom, I would like to take a minute to talk about some ways that motivation might be improved.
Although my own motivation is likely beyond all help, that has not stopped me from trying to increase the motivation of my students. A few months back, I wrote a post about my efforts employ motivational design to improve this aspect of my first-year legal research course.
Motivational design is a systematic method for creating courses that keep learners motivated and engaged. My efforts have been rooted in John Keller’s frequently-studied ARCS model, which breaks motivational design into 4 acronymic components: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction.
In that first post, my focus was on the first two components. I discussed how the Attention component entails getting learners’ attention—often via humor, surprise, and variety—while Relevance involves conveying how your course relates to their goals.
In today’s post, I’ll be finishing up the last two components of the ARCs model, Confidence and Satisfaction. At the outset, it’s worth noting that these components are inherently less visceral than the first two. Since the first two letters have already created the requisite engagement, the last two are more focused on structuring incentives to sustain that engagement. This is an important part of course design, but it sadly involves fewer memes.
Confidence refers to the degree to which the learner feels competent. As with many aspects of motivation, striking the right balance is key. We obviously want to avoid the situation where the learner totally lacks confidence, resulting in paralyzing feelings of hopelessness. However, overconfidence presents its own motivational problems, since a learner who thinks they already know the material has no real reason to engage with the course.
The first dimension of confidence relates to learning requirements. As the name suggests, this involves communicating course expectations and evaluative criteria to learners. When learning requirements are a mystery, it is impossible for students to gauge their own competence in any meaningful way, leading to considerable anxiety.
To establish learning requirements, I put the “big picture” objectives on the course syllabus, with the relevant smaller-scale goals listed at the beginning of each module. I also give students a “roadmap” at the beginning of each lecture to help better convey how the material fits into the overall learning requirements. Pretty basic stuff, although you cannot take it for granted in a law school environment!
Uniformity can also help with this aspect by taking some of the mystery and anxiety out of the course assessments. Thus, I designed my midterm and final to share the exact same format, with the hope that working on the midterm will increase student confidence when taking the final.
The next aspect of confidence involves creating success opportunities. You can turn assignments into success opportunities by calibrating the level of challenge to the abilities of the learners. Too easy and students will get bored; too difficult, and anxiety becomes a hindrance to motivation.
I structure my legal research course to create success opportunities for students. Each week, we have assignments that focus on one particular skill or concept. These weekly assignments are designed to walk students through these skills in a fairly detailed manner, giving them the chance to practice what they have learned without worrying about other aspects of legal research. This contrasts with the midterm and final, which require students to synthesize and apply everything they have learned. This allows me to scale the difficulty of the course in a predictable way that aligns with the increasing competency of the class.
The final element of confidence is personal control. The learner’s feeling that their actions and behaviors determine their outcomes is fundamental to confidence. Although the instructor needs to be in control of the course, focusing that control on the learning requirements can help to give students a sense of autonomy.
The open-ended quality of my assessments is one area where I hope to give my students a feeling of personal control. Although I do design my midterm and final with certain sources and methods in mind, very few of them are absolute requirements, and there are many possible credit-bearing answers. I try to emphasize to the class that I reward creative choices. This not only helps to establish a better and more accurate model of how legal research actually works, it also helps to solidify students’ feeling that the approach they choose makes a real difference.
As the final component of the ARCS model, it’s natural that satisfaction is largely related to different types of reinforcement. An effective system of reinforcement will leave students more satisfied with the learning process, creating a continued motivation to learn.
The first aspect of satisfaction is natural consequences, which deals with the satisfaction learners get from using their new skills. When students get meaningful opportunities to apply their knowledge, it increases their motivation, especially if the relevance of the knowledge has already been established.
Once again, my best example here comes from my midterm and final, which are designed to give students a realistic, open-ended venue for applying their new skills. The fact that this application takes place in a new context is very motivating for some students, who get a rush from figuring out how all of the different skills and concepts fit together. On the other hand, less adventurous students find this to be confusing or frustrating, something I try to mitigate by instilling some sense of familiarity, whether that means sharing my rubric or making the format of the assessments more uniform.
The next aspect of satisfaction, positive consequences, refers to the use of extrinsic rewards and incentives to motivate learners. Although this can be motivating, it is tricky to effectuate in an academic environment; even if the professional norms allowed me to give my best students fabulous prizes, I would lack any funding for doing so.
However, something as ephemeral as ‘bragging rights’ can be a surprisingly effective positive consequence for students. I have experimented with turning my class session on persuasive/mandatory authorities into a semi-competitive game. Students really want to win those games, and the only thing at stake is a small amount of recognition.
The final element of satisfaction is equity. This concerns not only fairness, but the overall social environment in which learning and motivation take place. Because students will inevitably evaluate their learning outcomes in comparison to those of their peers, it is important that the instructor evaluates student work rationally and consistently.
The key assessments for my legal research course are all graded blindly, which helps to create a perception of equity. In addition, I give my students a large amount of individualized feedback on those assessments. Although the primary purpose of that feedback is to help students improve their skills, it also contributes to equity by giving students a justification for their performance.
Overall Thoughts on ARCS
As a model, ARCS is what I would describe as fuzzy. The components overlap quite a bit, and I’m sure a creative motivational designer could find a way to shoehorn almost any idea into one of the categories. This also makes it tricky to use in a systematic fashion. Although Keller’s book describing the model has a few elaborate flowcharts, I struggled with these, and found ARCS to be much easier to implement in an impressionist fashion.
The biggest advantage of the ARCS model is that it gives instructors a framework for thinking about student motivation. Simply going through each step of the acronym and doing a bit of brainstorming is nearly guaranteed to lead to some improvements in your course.
In addition, some of the best ARCS strategies are relatively easy to implement. It doesn’t require tremendous amount of effort to introduce some attention-grabbing humor with a funny slide or to tweak the setting of a hypothetical to make it more relevant, and doing little things like that can make a big difference.
But that doesn’t apply to all of components. For example, most of the strategies for improving confidence are going to require instructors to put a lot of time and energy into overhauling their assessments. That’s not necessarily something that should be held against ARCS, but it is something that instructors need to factor into their planning process.
Motivation can be huge problem in a legal research course. The research aspect of the law is almost never what attracted students to it as a career, so a sense of natural curiosity and excitement is usually lacking in my classes. The high-stress environment of legal education also puts a lot of competing pressures upon students that don’t necessarily incentivize them to prioritize my course. ARCS has given me a meaningful way to address these issues, and using it has improved my course. Even if instructors do not adopt the ARCS model wholesale, I would encourage them to make a point of considering student motivation when designing their course.
 See John M. Keller, Motivational Design for Learning and Performance: The ARCS Model Approach (2010).
Here’s a recent article on motivation theory that may be of interest: https://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/llj114&div=7&id=&page=