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Motivation in the Legal Research Classroom

Motivating students in the legal research classroom can be a challenge. As we know, there are many false narratives surrounding students' conceptions of legal research's importance, interest level, and ease, all of which can result in a decrease in students' motivation to engage in this subject matter.

There are two types of motivation--intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation occurs when students are motivated by an outside reward or punishment;[1] in instruction, this is often the grades students will get on research assignments or the participation points they might receive for actively engaging with in-class exercises.  Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, occurs when students are interested in the topic for its own sake.[2]

Due to legal research's false narratives, students entering our classrooms tend to be drive primarily by extrinsic motivation.  The problem is, as Julie Dirksen aptly notes in her excellent book Design for How People Learn, "intrinsic motivation kicks extrinsic motivation's ass."[3]  Intrinsic motivation leads to greater and longer-term engagement and a greater depth of learning because the motivation doesn't go away when the reward or the punishment goes away.  Intrinsic motivation leads to a host of other benefits; those who are intrinsically motivated "tend to be more aware of a wide range of phenomena, while giving careful attention to complexities, inconsistencies, novel events, and unexpected possibilities."[4]  While extrinsic motivation can be useful for getting students in the room for class, how can we tap into the power of intrinsic motivation?

There are a number of different theories out there on how to support intrinsic motivation.  Most include three common factors that are laid out in self-determination theory (SDT) and its concept of cognitive valuation.[5] 

  1. Autonomy. Autonomy is the first element of SDT.  We can help increase students' intrinsic motivation by helping them feel some control and some freedom in their learning.  When conditions diminish students' perceived autonomy or competence, it undermines intrinsic motivation.[6]  I suspect this is why "treasure hunt" style exercises are so unpopular with students; in those exercises, they have little freedom to explore research platforms, to test out new methods, and to determine their actions. Instead, we should introduce strategies to students and then let them test them out themselves, hypothesizing what might work and adjusting their strategies if they fail. 
  2. Competence. Secondly, students need to feel challenged by their learning--it should be neither too difficult nor too easy.  When students have opportunities to gain new skills and to be challenged appropriately, their perception of their competence increases.[7]  This can be a difficult mark to hit when students arrive in our classroom with variant skill levels, but assignments that increase in difficulty is one way to ensure that all students are encountering a challenge in the assignment.  We can use scaffolding techniques with the early questions to help students with lower skill levels succeed with the earlier questions and work up to the more challenging questions.  But by having some harder questions toward the end, every student, regardless of their initial abilities, will be able to feel some struggle. By overcoming that struggle, students will start to have feelings of mastery, which is another important component of the competence prong of SDT.[8]
  3. Relatedness. Finally, students experience relatedness when they feel a connection to others.[9]  On legal research assignments, students are often working on their exercises solo.  Try finding ways to let your students work together to solve problems in pairs or groups, so they feel a connection to their classmates.  Maybe try setting up an advanced legal research class as a firm with a set of team goals that students can work toward as a unit.
Prizes and rewards in class are fun, but they do not have the power of intrinsic motivation in getting students to engage deeply in the material and consequently walk away with more knowledge.  By helping students increase their level of intrinsic motivation, not only will class be a better experience for all involved, but students will learn more.  Keeping these three prongs--autonomy, competence, and relatedness--in mind can help us to develop our courses in a way that utilizes the power of intrinsic motivation.





[1] Julie Dirksen, Design for How People Learn 30 (2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Karl M. Kapp, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education (2012).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

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