Deepening Motivation in Adult Learners


Understanding why we want to learn or embark on a particular course of study is critical to our eventual success. Motivation has been proven to be a critical component of the learning experience for all learners. For adult leaners, it is no different as adult learners are motivated or driven by a range of factors. Knowledge of motivation theories is, therefore, critical to higher education practitioners, in that it can inform programme design, course objectives, instructional and assessment strategies. Nilson (2014) describes motivation in education, as the stimulation of a desire to learn and further defines it in terms of its intrinsic and extrinsic nature.

Adult learners may be motivated by a love of a particular discipline, by a need for mastery or by the relevance and applicability of the programme of study; this is seen as intrinsic motivation. Conversely, extrinsic motivation is linked to external factors or rewards, like the expectation of a high paying job, a promotion, a raise of pay, peer or familial approval and improved social status (Nilson, 2014). Theoretical interpretations of motivation link it to specific types of impulses or desires. These range from behaviourist emphases like immediate rewards to concepts of goal orientation and expectancy theories (Nilson, 2014).

In considering our roles as Higher Education practcioners, I think that it is critical for us to understand how adult learners are motivated so that the principles of motivation can be more readily applied to programme design and the actual facilitation of learning. According to goal orientation theory, learners may be oriented by a desire to learn and master knowledge and skills for their own development or they may be motivated to perform in order to demonstrate “superiority” to other students (Jacobson, 2011). As a practitioner who has worked extensively in the area of teacher education, I have found a mix of these attributes among adult learners and hence my interest in goal oriented learning. Students with a learner orientation, can perhaps be described as passionate learners; those who interface with knowledge enthusiastically and are self-directed in their scholarly pursuits, while performance oriented learners may be driven by a desire for grades or other extrinsic rewards.

Is it possible then to move students who are purely extrinsically motivated towards a deeper more enduring level of motivation? I think that this should be the aim of educational programme design, in terms of crafting opportunities for students to be more reflective about their own motivations for learning. If a programme is cramped with assessments that are purely content driven, I think that learners will focus only on the immediacy of grades. If course design is more reflective and developmental, if it is based on process approaches, developmental structures and real-world experiences and if these are laced with opportunities for students to think about their own thinking (metacognition) I think that such learning becomes far more meaningful and enduring (Sogunro, 2014). This then underscores the relationship between intrinsic motivation, deep learning and new knowledge creation (Wald and Castleberry, 2000).

I can personally draw reference to in a programme I designed for teachers entitled “Building Bridges for Meaningful Learning”. While this was a teacher and leadership development programme designed to acquaint teachers and curriculum leaders with the requisite content knowledge about identifying and catering to varying student needs, it first required them to examine their current teaching philosophy. Through the use of graphic organizers and self-reflective questionnaires as lead-in activities, I encouraged participants to think about their current practice and about their country’s national educational system, before even introducing them to new strategies. This enabled us to explore, discuss and to grapple with tensions and practitioner anomalies, which may have been disregarded, had I simply focused on content.

This strategy, therefore, spoke to my programme aims. I was not only interested in delivering content but was more concerned about developing reflective educators, who would question what they knew and practiced. This, to my mind, was a precursor to real professional growth, which started with my attempts to deepen motivation. This created the context for knowledge generation (Wald and Castleberry, 2000). While there are a number of models of motivation, strategies that focus on inclusion, collaboration, the development of a positive attitude and the building of competencies, are also likely to work well with adult learners (O’Connell, 2005).

Developing intrinsically motivated learners is critical because it bears implications for life long learning. If we are only motivated by public accolades or by the satisfaction which may come with scoring an A, what will motivate us when we simply need to engage with new knowledge as a part of our own professional development? With respect to on going professional development, becoming an avid learner can be a precursor to sustained professional growth and the management and application of new knowledge. Higher educational practitioners who are also able to model the passion for learning through their approach to their own professional development, are also well on their way, towards stimulating growth in their students.


Jacobsen, G. (2011). Teacher goal setting-Learning oriented vs performance oriented        goals. Inquire Within. Retrieved from             oriented-vs-performance-oriented-goals/

Nilson, L.B. (2014). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college     instructors. (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

O’Connell, K. (2005). Motivational strategies. Retrieved from 

Sogunro, O.A. (2015).Motivating factors for adult learners in higher education.      International Journal of Higher Education , 4 (1), 22-37. Retrieved from   

Wald, P. J. & Castleberry, M. S. (2000). Educators as learners. VA: ASCD




Are You a Risk-Thinker?


As a part of my Doctoral programme, we were required to do a course on leading change in education. As is customary in these highly interactive courses, we were required to articulate the words and ideas which we naturally associated with change-management; immediately I coined the term “risk-thinking”. An obvious spin off from the word “risk-taker”, risk-thinking for me is where it all begins. Historically, any significant social or personal change has had to begin in the thoughts or imagination. We have to begin to think that change is possible, see it in our mind’s eye, before we can begin to articulate what that change should look like. Although risk-thinking can be applied to any aspect of our personal or professional lives, it can hold deep significance when applied to the context of education; especially since formal education as we know it, is built on a foundation of rich tradition and institutionalisation.

Risk-thinking is a valuable tool for 21st Century educational leaders, who must begin to conceptualise new ways for constructing a dynamic educational system to better meet the needs of a rapidly evolving society. A leader’s ability to manage change, however, will require the skill of moving messy sometimes chaotic and spontaneous thoughts from an expectant imagination, to a doable action plan. According to Roscorla, (2010) innovative leadership involves a willingness to break rules and traditions, to establish principles, which are capable of buffering change. Change is, therefore, never valueless. Underlying most change processes is a desire to make things better. This desire for development and growth in a context of innovation must, however, be guided by reflective consideration of all the change variables. It must embody a healthy respect for the past and be guided by shared values which articulate why the change is preferred or critical.

Asking ourselves what policies or practices we will completely ditch, merge, modify or re-create, is an important step in the process of moving our risk-thinking to wise action. Engaging all stakeholders in the process is also critical, as leaders who see themselves as lone crusaders or heroes will soon experience the exhaustion that comes with burnout. The creation of organisational buy-in through shared idea-generation, transparency in decision-making, and the implementation of accountability systems are strategic leadership strategies for ensuring sustainable change.

Ultimately, the objective of risk-thinking should not be the creation of an impossible, out of reach “pie-in-the-sky” ideal. Great ideas that lack infrastructural soundness can be counterproductive and may lead to greater organisational frustration. Innovative leadership requires not just the creativity to think great ideas but must include building the organisational capacity to make them happen.

Denise J Charles © 2017


Roscorla, T. (2010). The seven steps to innovative leadership. Converge, Center for DigitalEducation. Retrieved from Innovative-Leadership.html



Caribbean Education: New Wine, Old Wineskins?

“Since the education system in the region was not designed to be inclusive, it is not surprising that in the absence of fundamental reforms, it is proving to be unfit for education provision in a 21st Century context, where the focus is on democratisation of access, inclusiveness, equitable provision of education for all learners and addressing the individual needs of each student. ”

 Dr. Glenford Howe, Senior Programme and Research Officer, University of the West Indies, Open Campus

students_learning_computersThe captioned statement by Dr. Howe can perhaps be considered a telling indictment on the status of educational reform in the Caribbean. We are currently being swept along a global tide to see education transformed; away from the focus on the rote memorisation and tidy rows of homogenous students in the industrial era, to a dynamic, exciting, multi-cultural and student-centred context in the digital age. At least that’s what we want in our heads and on paper. While the demands for equity are being sounded loudly in our ears by international agencies like the UN who are requiring more of us, we are perhaps beginning to question the voracity of the philosophy of exclusivity, which has been foundational to Caribbean education. I am not convinced, therefore, that we are willing to make the drastic changes needed to render our systems fully inclusive and equally accessible.

The socio-cultural history of Caribbean post-slavery societies is one built on educational privilege, elitism and separation of the “sheep from the goats” to use the local parlance of some teachers. Education was about labelling, separating and excluding those who did not fit the preferred profile of academic acuity because it reflected deeply entrenched social divides, emerging from our history. Fast forward to an era where the global collective voice on education as the undergird of national development, is the refrain “each one matters”; this reflects the shared official perspective among nation states, that all deserve access to quality education. Education for All (EFA), the global movement led by UNESCO, has both agitated for and led this move, through its global initiatives to broaden the scope for educational access in the developing world. In Caribbean nations like Barbados, where this access is widespread and guaranteed for children from preschool to Secondary, the question is not just access but the quality of such access.

We must begin to question the extent to which an edict like “each one matters” is being reflected enough in educational policy changes. In several regions, we retain a secondary school entrance exam that is grounded in a “pecking order” of schools which is suggestive of superiority and inferiority among school types. This is one critical developmental roadblock as it breeds school climate, student behaviour and academic achievement issues. We tout differentiated instruction at our teacher training colleges but maintain in our schools and universities an excessively slavish loyalty to traditional paper pencil tests, even in areas like Fine Arts and Theatre. It is as if each subject discipline must be validated by the essay, because unless you can write a thematic essay, there is no evidence to the traditionalists, that learning has, in fact, occurred.

We welcome droves of technological equipment from funding agencies but at the organisational level, our educational leaders remain suspicious and afraid of technological use that will employ student cellular phones and or tablets in the classroom. These critical issues cause us involved in educational research and commentary, to wonder what it will really take for Caribbean territories to re-imagine educational systems in the 21st Century.

I think that truly creating congruence between the aims of the digital age and the aims of current education in the region, is critical. We are already living in a digital, globalised environment where the internet and easy technological access has changed the power brokerage in education. Students and teachers can be easily empowered to craft their own learning and teaching journeys and the educational system, as one which promotes formal assessments, must catch up with this reality. It must show how it is willing to adapt to fit what isn’t going away in a hurry- the digital economy- if it is going to improve its relevance. This will have implications for educational funding, resource allocation, teacher pedagogical practices and on-going professional development.

Maximising the potential inherent in education in the digital age and the need for policy innovations, will require a significant amount of risk-thinking which is always preceded by discomfort with the familiar. Its akin to the need to put new wine into new wine skins since the old ones will definitely be inadequate. Admittedly, new policy development is often dogged by political bureaucracy and the malaise which this brings. Educational and classroom leaders willing to seize the very real moments of creative and incremental change, which lies within the ambit of their professional power, can nonetheless provide tangible hope for a new educational day.

Author: Denise J Charles © 2017

Higher Education: Branding Our Way Into the Digital Future

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Whether it’s their physical image, where they live, the gadgets they use or what they drive, Millennials have quickly learnt the value of a good brand.   Branding represents the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s mind, through utilizing themes, visuals, ideas and associations in advertising. Branding seeks to distinguish and differentiate what ever is being promoted, as it attempts to foster customer loyalty. So what does branding have to do with the future of Higher Education?

The digital age in which we live is admittedly dynamic, competitive, edgy and a tad unpredictable. As soon as we think we have mastered the latest technological gizmo or gadget, we are quickly introduced to an even faster or more efficient one. At the same time, market demands for knowledge and digital competence and the easy accessibility of such, means that today’s educational consumer is a far different animal from those in the past. Millennials

Widespread access to knowledge through the Internet, our propensity to always be “on line” and the pervasive use of social media, have effectively redefined life as we knew it. Social media and personal branding allows anyone to tout himself/herself as an expert in any given field. “Googling” and “YouTubing” have today become the “go to” behaviours of 21st Century digital natives who are quick to trade stuffy textbooks for Internet expertise, and the real-time experiences of live streaming. This has given much power or at least a sense of power and ownership to today’s learner or educational consumer. Educational institutions at any level must, therefore, “up their game” if they hope to maintain the attention of individuals who are now self-directed, empowered knowledge-learners because they already bring so much to the table. How then can Higher Education institutions maintain their competitive edge in this unpredictable, disruptive but exciting digital world?

Educational leaders and stakeholders must seek to actively engage in rebranding their institutions, in order to change the way these institutions are perceived by potential consumers. Are our institutions actively engaged with the digital world? Is this engagement reflected in our programme design and delivery, communication systems, or by our programmes’ openness, accessibility and global reach? Are our institutions comfortable with maximizing the benefits of social media, since this is the new normal in relationship building and social engagement? Institutions which are able to successfully market these attributes in their recruitment drives and programming, will perhaps emerge as those of choice in the digital era.

While attracting quality, competent students will always be an important factor in Higher Education sustainability, the extent to which institutions and their leaders are current and active participants in the digital world, will to some degree, also determine institutional relevance in the 21st Century. Institutional relevance is as much about leveraging a digital presence, as it is about shifting the institution’s raison d’etre to one, which is in sync with the disruptive innovation of today’s digital era and all that that entails. How institutions choose to navigate the digital world through both programming and presence on the digital landscape is, in itself, a critical component of building a successful brand.

Author: Denise J Charles © 2016