Social Pedagogies: Authentic Audiences and Student Motivation

The Calm After the ShowWhile visiting Georgetown University last week, I participated in a discussion about social pedagogies with Randy Bass, director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS).  Randy and his colleague Heidi Elmendorf use the term “social pedagogies” to describe a cluster of teaching practices that “engage students with… an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher) where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course.” Randy is writing a white paper on this topic drawing on the experiences and experiments of instructors in a range of disciplines. Although the white paper isn’t finished, the proposal for the paper is available online. After reading that proposal, I prepared some opening remarks for the discussion at Georgetown, and I thought I would share an edited version of those remarks here on the blog.


In one of my first teaching assignments, I inherited an applied linear algebra course from a colleague. He suggested that I have students complete application projects at the end of the semester, giving them a chance to apply the mathematical techniques we had studied to “real world” problems of their choosing. This was a great suggestion, and the quality of the student papers was impressive. However, I felt it was a loss that I was the only one to ever see my students’ good work. So the next semester, I had students design posters to accompany their papers. The last day of class was a poster fair in which students learned about each other’s work and voted on the best posters—most mathematically sophisticated, most interesting application, most attractive poster. This was a fun way to end the semester, and I suspected at the time that the students put more effort into the projects because they knew their peers would see their posters.

My suspicion was affirmed while reading Richard Light’s Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds.  Light’s research indicates that students take their writing more seriously when they write for their peers than when they write for their professors. His argument, as I recall it, was that a student can turn in a paper to a professor in which something isn’t explained very clearly, assuming that the professor will fill in the gaps. Students know their peers can’t fill in those gaps, so they have to work a little harder to explain themselves if they want their peers to understand them. And since they generally want to share their ideas with their peers, they put forth that effort.

After reading Light’s book, I asked my students in subsequent applied math courses to write their papers “as if to a fellow student,” hoping to tap into this phenomenon. I didn’t, however, actually have them share their papers with each other, just their project posters. I think this helped improve the clarity of my students’ writing since they had a more concrete audience in mind, but it didn’t tap into the full effect of the idea of an authentic audience.

A few years later while mowing the yard, I listened via podcast to a talk by Gardner Campbell, then at the University of Mary Washington. In the talk he described his use of course blogs in his English courses. He had each student start his or her own blog and post regular reflections about the course material. Students were asked to tag their course-related blog posts with a particular tag, and the “mother blog” that Gardner managed then aggregated those posts in a single course blog. This meant it was easy for students to see and comment on each other’s writings, yet each student had his or her own digital space to customize and inhabit.

Gardner discovered that in the students’ final papers, instead of just drawing on their own writing from earlier in the course (which was common in past iterations of the course), they also drew on each other’s writings, even citing their peers’ blog posts! Moreover, students from past offerings of the course sometimes left comments on the blog in response to current students posts, and on rare occasions the authors they were studying left comments, too! Gardner talked about making public and permanent the kind of student knowledge production that was once private and temporary and that doing so led to the creation of a thriving learning community.

Gardner’s talk was the first time it occurred to me how powerful a motivator it can be to have an authentic audience for student work. The importance of knowing one’s audience has long been a part of the teaching of writing, but even in writing courses, there’s historically not been an authentic audience, just a pretend audience. I’ve seen this in efforts to add more writing to math courses by giving students assignments in which they pretend they are consultants solving some mathematical problem posed by a client (say, a small business or a local government). Although one can’t write well without some knowledge of one’s audience, if the audience is merely a pretend one, then the motivational power of an authentic audience is absent. I think that’s why students see so much of their course work as “busywork.” There’s no authentic audience for the work. Students write papers, instructors read and grade those papers, and then the papers go in the physical or virtual recycle bin. What’s motivating about that?

Why is “busywork” a problem? Because when students see their learning experiences as just a series of hoops to jump through on their way to a career, most of their motivation for engaging in those learning experiences is external. They suffer through all their colleges classes because they know they’ll need a transcript (with a healthy amount of A’s, of course) to land that grad school spot or high-paying job. Unfortunately, external motivations don’t lead to deep learning, just surface learning or strategic learning. (Students who are more risk-averse tend to be surface learners, while more competitive students tend to be strategic learners, just doing enough to get that A.) Deep learning is hard work, and external motivations just aren’t strong enough for students facing that difficulty. If we want our students to engage in deep learning, we need find ways to connect that learning with their internal motivations. Conventional wisdom says we should try to convince students of the value or beauty or merit of our field, so that they develop an intrinsic interest in the subject. That’s a valuable approach, but the idea of an authentic audience opens up a different set of approaches to foster intrinsic motivation in the learning process.

I read Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, over the summer, and he cited some research on motivation that has given me a better understanding of the tools I have as a teacher to motivate my students. In the book, Shirky examines the ideas that we as a society have more free time on our hands than we did in decades past and that social and collaborative technologies allow us to spend that free time together doing impressive things. Think about the open-source software movement, or the Ushahidi crisis mapping service, or even LOLcats. These are all activities in which contributors receive no external rewards (such as income or jobs), yet they spend lots of time and energy in making them happen. Why do they do so?

Shirky points to Deci’s classic work on motivation, noting that everyone has a desire to be autonomous and a desire to be competent. The autonomy condition is satisfied in these kinds of projects because people opt in to participating. The competency condition is satisfied when people contribute something they find worthwhile—even if that’s a particularly funny LOLcat that no on else ever sees. As educators, we can leverage these personal motivations, too, by giving students choices over how they complete their learning experiences (satisfying their desire for autonomy) and by pitching our courses at that Goldilocks level—not too hard and not too easy (satisfying their desire for competency). A student might still “hate math” but feel autonomous and competent in a well-designed math course.

I was already familiar with Deci’s work, but Shirky pointed to some research on motivation that was new to me, research done by Benkler and Nissenbaum on social motivations. It’s this work that helps to explain why having an authentic audience can be so motivating for students. In addition to their desires for autonomy and competency, people also have desires to connect (to join communities) and to share (to share themselves with their communities). Having students write for each other on a blog, as Gardner Campbell did, taps into these social motivations. Doing so helps the students feel like they’re in a community (satisfying their desire to connect) and gives them a platform to contribute to that learning community (satisfying their desire to share). Even if the students don’t have any prior interest in the course material, they can still be motivated to participate meaningfully in a learning community because of these social motivations.

Consider this non-academic example: This summer, media artist and writer A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz gave a talk about the Farmville phenomenon. Farmville is a silly little Facebook game in which players grow virtual vegetables and share them with each other. Liskziewicz writes: “If Farmville is laborious to play and aesthetically boring, why are so many people playing it? The answer is disarmingly simple: people are playing Farmville because people are playing Farmville.”  There’s really nothing much to the game other than social motivations, but that’s enough to make the game very, very popular.

The diagram that accompanies Randy Bass’ white paper proposal includes a component that reads “connect the affective and cognitive.” The role of the affective domain in learning, that is, what students feel about learning, what motivates them to learn, is significant. I see great potential for what Randy calls social pedagogies for tapping into the affective domain by leveraging students’ social motivations (their desires to connect and to share).

For example, last fall I posted my students’ expository essays to my course blog and required students to read and comment on two of their peers’ papers. This gave the students an authentic audience for their writing—each other. Moreover, some of the students Googled their paper topics and found out that their papers are now on the first page of results for those topics! One student said about this, “Some high school student is going to cite my paper!”  I told him that’s why I wanted him to write a good one! Even more exciting was the long comment left on the blog by one of the authors cited by one of my students in his paper! Given Gardner Campbell’s experiences, I had hoped something like this would happen, but I didn’t really expect it to. My students were somewhat awed that someone from their bibliographies was reading their work!

Another experiment in social pedagogies of mine last fall was the use of social bookmarking. I let my students contribute to their class participation grade by bookmarking and tagging resources relevant to the course material on Delicious. By asking students to use a common tag for their bookmarks (“fywscrypto”), I was able to aggregate their bookmarks and share them on the course blog. I made sure to spend at least ten minutes during class each week having students share their finds with the class. This kept the work from becoming “busy work” by integrating it in our class discussions, and it tapped into my students’ desires to share what they were learning with their community. The bookmarking itself was easy enough technically for the students and leveraged their not inconsiderable skill in surfing the Web!

In both of these examples, my students were sharing their work with what I think were authentic audiences. That seems to be a key aspect of leveraging students’ social motivations, their desires to connect and to share. Since those motivations are intrinsic ones, they have the potential to lead to deep learning, which is, after all, the end goal of teaching. Thanks to CNDLS and Randy Bass for the opportunity to explore these ideas together, and I’m looking forward to Randy’s white paper and future conversations.

Finally, here are a few questions about social pedagogies that occurred to me as I was preparing the above remarks:

  • The Grade Inflation Question – Here’s one that I’ve been dealing with the last few weeks: When you have a well-designed course with well-motivated students engaged in deep learning, it’s hard not to end up with a lot of A’s in the course! What’s the relationship between social pedagogies and summative assessment?
  • The Faculty Development Question – I’m still getting a lot of oohs and aahs in consultations with faculty when I share with the idea of a think-pair-share. If that’s where many faculty are in terms of their own knowledge of teaching and learning, how on earth can I help them get to the point where they employ a variety of social pedagogies?
  • The Digital Native Question – Randy argues in his proposal that social pedagogies need not feature educational technologies. But given how “kids these days” use technology, might there be an imperative for faculty to use social tech to enact social pedagogies?

Your comments are welcome!

Image: “The Calm after the Show,” Thomas Hawk, Flickr (CC)

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