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Motivating Learners: A Primer for Engineering Teaching Assistants

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Tricks of the Trade

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

25.949.1 - 25.949.18



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Paper Authors


Ana T. Torres-Ayala University of South Florida

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Ana T. Torres-Ayala is a doctoral candidate in higher education at the University of South Florida. She holds a B.S. degree in computer engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, and a M.Eng. degree in computer and systems engineering from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute. She has experience in the telecommunications industry where she worked for Lucent Technologies. Torres-Ayala was previously an information technology instructor. Her research interests include faculty development, scholarship of teaching and learning, graduate education, and broadening participation of underrepresented groups in engineering.

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Geoffrey L. Herman University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Orcid 16x16

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Geoffrey L. Herman earned his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, as a Mavis Future Faculty Fellow. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher for the Illinois Foundry for Engineering Education. His research interests include conceptual change and development in engineering students, promoting intrinsic motivation in the classroom, blended learning (integrating online teaching tools into the classroom), and intelligent tutoring systems. He is a recipient of the 2011 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Educational Research and Methods Division Apprentice Faculty Grant. He has been recognized with the Olesen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Ernest A. Reid Fellowship for engineering education. He has served as a graduate affiliate for the Center for Teaching Excellence. He is currently the Information Chair for the ASEE Student Division and the immediate Past Chair of the Graduate Engineering Education Consortium for Students.

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Motivating Learners: What Teaching Assistants Need to KnowIn engineering education, motivation is often discussed from a programmatic perspective (howdo we recruit students into engineering?) or a curricular perspective (how do we retain them?). These perspectives often overlook the importance of motivation within the classroom andthe daily processes of teaching and learning engineering. Although motivation in the classroomis often neglected in graduate student training, most instructors and TAs intuitively understandthat motivation is critical for effective learning. For example, motivation helps students focustheir attention on learning activities, proactively seek new learning activities, and persist in thoseactivities until learning goals are reached.Although future engineering professors and instructors have a sense of the centrality ofmotivation in learning engineering, they are often uncertain how to adjust their instruction tomotivate their students. For example, many instructors design new laboratory-based and project-based instruction to boost motivation, but these efforts are often greeted by apathy or resistancefrom the students. This situation is further exacerbated by curriculum (re)design efforts whichemphasize the presentation and transmission of course material rather than everyday teachingdecisions that motivate, or demotivate, the students to learn the material. Despite the challengeof motivating students, motivation theories and their impact on instruction are often outsidethe scope of typical graduate engineering curricula and graduate teaching assistant trainingprograms. Consequently, many teaching assistants struggle to effectively motivate theirstudents.In this paper, we plan to present the basics of motivation theories: their impact on studentlearning and their implications for teaching engineering. We aim to create a primer ofmotivation theories and how they can be used to inform and direct instruction.This primer will be developed from the perspectives of a researcher of the preparation of futurefaculty and a developer of teaching assistant training programs. The primer will first present andsynthesize a selection of recent theories of motivation. With these theories as a backdrop, wewill discuss how these theories can be used in and outside the classroom. For example, we willdiscuss how to promote a mastery orientation among students that focus too much on grades andhow to promote intrinsic motivation by giving students choice and control over their learning.Because previous work on motivation theories in the classroom has focused on the actionsof faculty, this primer will particularly emphasize how engineering teaching assistants canpromote motivation within the context of typical teaching assistant duties: facilitating discussionsections, holding office hours, providing feedback (grading), assisting students in laboratorysettings, and creating problem sets and solutions.

Torres-Ayala, A. T., & Herman, G. L. (2012, June), Motivating Learners: A Primer for Engineering Teaching Assistants Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21706

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