By: Sarah Walton, Department of Biology

Educators must work with their students to highlight how they will motivate and engage each other to achieve academic success. Students want to apply expertise to a career of choice, whereas educators must promote a socially and intellectually stimulating environment so their students can apply and connect expertise to real-world applications. In post-secondary institutions, the drivers and motivation behind registration for any one course may be dictated by a sincere passion for course content, its positon as a stepping stone in a related program, or its mandatory requirement to achieve a desired, yet unrelated, degree (Carleton University, 2018). Once enrolled, persistence and eagerness will largely drive students’ efforts to invest continued time and energy into short- and long-term goals (Cherry, 2017). Regardless of their initial level of motivation, however, student-educator engagement can heighten students’ persistence and level of commitment to retain and apply their new expertise (Skinner & Belmont, 1993). I argue that, in an academic setting, educators must aim to identify, and influence levels of student motivation and engagement at different stages of their learning. My plan mimics the constructs of a well-known occupational health and safety program in Ontario, under which workers must consider workplace risks at the source, along the path, and at the workers themselves. The three main equivalent stages educators must consider are the source (e.g., the students, their motivation and persistence to learn and engage), their academic path (e.g., an individual course or academic degree), and the worker (e.g., educators, and their influence on students).

Students enter academia with enduring qualities, such as prior experience, academic strengths, and unique personalities, all of which will impact the outcome of their academic pursuits. Despite these qualities, their perception of their learning environment will determine their approach and interest with respect to training and academic study, and subsequent success in personal and professional ambitions (Lizzio, Wilson, & Simons, 2004). The degree of attention, inquisitiveness, and optimism students express indicates their engagement, and positive experiences may increase their level of motivation to achieve their desired academic goals (Great Schools Partnership, 2014) and academic performance, as well as elevate their attitude and self-awareness, which are important qualities in the workforce (Great Schools Partnership, 2014). Without motivation, students may not integrate new information into their knowledge base, nor attempt to make links to other disciplines in which they are interested.

To establish and build their motivation, I recommend educators work collaboratively with their students to develop a code of conduct. This code would outline expectations of the students, and may include respect, effective communication, retention of key take-home messages, and a consideration for how course content may link to known interests. Such a code would place the responsibility for self-motivation and engagement on students on a daily basis. After students have developed a sense of self-motivation, we need to ask ourselves how such retention and links be made on a consistent basis.

Individuals face increased levels of challenge throughout their academic pursuits, and may only thrive if they successfully engage in active and collaborative learning opportunities through increased student-educator interaction in a supportive learning environment (Kenney, Kenney & Dumont, 2005). Motivation and engagement are two core pieces to a complex learning puzzle, where ‘deep‘ learning permits students to apply their new expertise, rather than simply regurgitate information with little integration (Kenney, Kenney & Dumont, 1995). While educators may use integrated approaches so that their students may interpret knowledge suitable to their learning styles, academic achievement and deep learning are strongly dependent on whether the expectations associated with the learning process and academic products of a specific course are clearly communicated (Great Schools Partnership, 2014).

As a Teaching Assistant (TA), I recognize and acknowledge that my students lack clarity and are subsequently confused by expectations associated with their academic performance in first-year biology, relative to other course disciplines. As TAs, we ned to ensure students are aware of varying expectations between disciplines and emphasize the take-home messages (e.g., process vs. result, graphs vs. calculations) associated with their assignments. TAs in biology, for instance, must make clear that while physics reports require inclusion of all raw data, biological reports focus on final results and their interpretation. In my experience, such oral conversations reduce confusion, increase engagement, aid students with stronger auditory learning styles, and promote individual motivation to retain knowledge and excel with each assignment. Since graduate students play a pivotal role interacting with undergraduates as their TA, we need to determine TAs (whose personality and goals are not pursuant to a professor-like role) spark such conversations.

Graduate students must invest themselves in undergraduate student success regardless of the fact that their goals range significantly, from those born to teach to those glued to producing papers. I live to teach, with ambitions to instruct college courses given my tactile learning style and my positive experiences in my initial post-secondary education program at Fleming College. In my role as a TA, I enjoy the challenge of making theoretical knowledge and its application (e.g., Hardy Weinberg equilibrium) interesting and lively. TAs must be aware of and appreciate their role in engaging students, as well as recognized the satisfaction both sides receive when TAs engage in a positive, approachable manner (Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005). TAs are at the forefront of the undergraduate learning experience, and therefore we have a vested interest in student success (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). We may meet our obligations to motivate and inspire by:

” encouraging contact and communication between students, ourselves, and professors;
” developing reciprocity and cooperation among students;
” using active learning techniques, drawn from our own pool of talents;
” providing prompt, clear feedback in written form, identifying methods for improvement;
” emphasizing time-on-task to work in a concise manner; and
” expressing vulnerability, providing the impetus to improve, and underscoring the importance of failure in success.

Educators must become self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses with respect to the aforementioned list, and strive to incorporate each task into their academic appointments.

My career began as a Fish and Wildlife student at Fleming College’s School of Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences. The expectations of each course and their learning outcomes were clear, and my professors accelerated my motivation to succeed with their unwavering enthusiasm, support, and engagement. To become a biologist, I enrolled as an undergraduate student at Trent University, where I maintained self-motivation to succeed but witnessed a stark contrast in engagement by TAs. When professionals in training are denied opportunities for interpersonal interactions and mentorship, their development can be stunted; in my own case, I wonder how much of my development as a researcher and educator has been impacted by those omissions, and the lack of engagement I have encountered in a university environment.

Educators drive success when we engage in conversations that clarify course content, expectations, and workplace opportunities, and when we invest energy to address and reflect on key considerations that influence achievement at the source of our students, along their academic paths, and within ourselves.


Carleton University. (2018). TA article. Pedagogical Training for TAs. Retrieved from

Cherry, K. (2017). Motivation: Psychological factors that guide behavior. Retrieved from

Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (March 1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 3-7.

Great Schools Partnership. (2014). Student engagement. The Glossary of Education Reform. Retrieved from

Kenney, G., Kenney, D., & Dumont, R. (2005). Mission and place: Strengthening learning and community through campus design. Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Praeger Publishers.

Lizzio, A., Wilson, K. & Simons, R. (2010). University students’ perceptions of the learning environment and academic outcomes: Implications for theory and practice. Studies in Higher Education, 27(1), 27-52.

Skinner, E. A., & Belmont, M. J. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4), 571-581.

Umbach, P.D., and Wawrzynski, M.R. (2005). Faculty do matter: The role of college faculty in student learning and engagement. Research in High Education, 46(2), 153-184.