Meet Maslow: He Can Help With Student Motivation. Big Time.


BruceBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

Student motivation is often addressed and explained by internal and external factors that are specific to every individual student. For example, some students may be motivated by an internal, perceived sense of accomplishment in the class while others experience external motivation because of what they can accomplish in their career as a result of completing the class or degree. An important theory in adult education that helps provide a structured format for understanding how student motivation is developed and maintained is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. By understanding student motivation as a set of hierarchical steps, while applying it to the classroom environment created by the instructor, it becomes possible to develop learning activities and facilitation strategies that will meet these needs and enhance motivation.

The basic premise of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is that every individual has a series of motivating factors or needs that can be classified according to five specific groups. These groups include physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization needs. Physiological needs refer to a person’s need for feeling good physically, and it is often associated with having adequate food and shelter. Safety needs are associated with a person’s need for a secure environment. Social needs generally include such elements as love and belonging, which are related to a person’s ability to complete family and societal roles that are expected of them. Esteem needs consist of factors such as social status, a need for respect from a person’s peers, and a clearly defined sense or perception of self image. Self-actualization needs refer to a person’s overall growth and development. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a structure or specified order of importance for each of those needs. This is a reminder that basic needs must be met first before any other needs can be addressed. Each need in the hierarchy must be met before proceeding to higher order needs, which culminates in the need for self-actualization. This hierarchical set of needs can be translated to the classroom or academic environment, including traditional and online classrooms.

Physiological Needs
An individual’s need to feel good and having adequate or basic resources can translate to the classroom as a student’s need to have all of the resources, tools, and techniques necessary to be an active participant in the process of learning and more importantly, complete the required learning activities successfully. As an example, if students are provided with course materials such as a textbook, but they are not given any other resources to support the development of their academic skill sets, this initial or primary need may not be met and in turn, may affect the student’s motivation in the class.

Safety Needs
Once physiological needs are met the next step in the hierarchical process is an individual’s need for safety. This can translate to a classroom environment and becomes a student’s need to feel secure. More importantly, students expect that the instructor has created a safe learning environment where opinions, beliefs, contributions, prior experiences, and existing knowledge can be shared during class discussions in a respectful manner. In addition, students want to believe that they can ask questions and receive a timely, respectful, professional, and helpful response. An instructor may not be able to establish or guarantee that the classroom environment will be physically safe; however, they can create conditions that help students develop a perception or feeling of safety while they are participating in the process of learning.

Social Needs
It may seem that social needs would be difficult to address or translate into a classroom environment because they are often associated with such qualities as love and belonging. These needs can be met in an environment where the instructor is promoting the development of collaborative activities that in turn will help to develop a sense of community among students. As an example, group activities and team exercises can be included as a means of helping students learn to collaborate with  each other and work together. An additional benefit of these activities is that it will strengthen class discussions and help them to develop a perceptual sense of belonging.

Esteem Needs
This group of needs is directly related to a perceived image of status and respect. This reminds instructors of the importance of creating a professional learning environment, which means that students are respectful of one another. Another method of addressing esteem needs is to help students develop a strong sense of self-awareness, which can be accomplished through the inclusion of individual activities and exercises, along with personalized feedback and words of encouragement. Students who discover that they have a capacity to learn and experience self-development, through their continued effort and the support of their instructor, are likely to experience an awareness of their esteem needs being met.

This need is at the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It translates into a classroom environment as a students’ sense of personal and/or professional growth, directly attributable to their involvement in the class and participation in learning activities. Because of the perceptual nature of these needs it is possible that students may not fully realize they have experienced self-actualization until after the class is concluded. For example, when students receive feedback for their final projects and exams they may experience a feeling of accomplishment. This may also occur once they have received their final grades. It is also possible that students may not fully recognize self-actualization has occurred until they have moved along into another class and discovered the depths of what they have learned or the knowledge they have acquired. Self-actualization may also be realized when students discover that they have knowledge and skills that allow them to advance in their careers.

As an adjunct you have many responsibilities and facilitation duties to consider every week of your class. Is it possible that you can assess every student’s specific set of needs and determine if all of these needs are being met? The most likely answer is that you cannot accomplish such an individualized task, especially given the perceptual nature of so many of these needs and the accelerated pace of the class in comparison to an internalized process. But what you can do as a classroom instructor is to understand the underlying nature of student motivation and utilize Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a checklist while developing learning activities and instructional strategies. When you are able to help students engage in the class in a way that helps them believe they can meet their personal and professional needs, you are likely to see an increase in their motivation and participation in the class.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a PhD in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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