It wasn’t long into her teaching tenure at Illinois State University that Dr. Iuliia Tetteh, an assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture, noticed that learning tactics she found interesting and exciting as a student didn’t catch the attention of the young people she was teaching.

Tetteh trekked over a few doors in the Ropp Agriculture Building to Professor Dr. Aslihan Spaulding’s office and asked if she saw the same thing in her classes. The pair concluded that they should ask the students themselves what most motivated them.

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“We talk about how we expect everyone in class to be excited and ready to participate, yet in reality, it takes some effort for students to talk and contribute to discussion,” Spaulding said.

So in 2018, the pair conducted a survey to investigate how to most effectively reach students who are in their late teens and early 20s. What they found was that students today are more engaged and motivated in class when the material is relevant to their career goals and the world around them rather than focused on course objectives.

Prior to the survey, Spaulding and Tetteh reviewed scholarly articles related to their investigation. These reviews showed how today’s students—surrounded by the latest technologies that can connect them to just about anything in a single click— had a lower tolerance for delay, expected feedback almost immediately, and strongly preferred learning by doing. With that information, the Illinois State professors collaborated with University of Georgia Agriculture Assistant Professor Dr. Yangxuan Liu, then-undergraduate Michael Miner ’19, and peers from other institutions to develop survey questions. The team then sent those to students centered on the research question, How do you motivate and engage students in a classroom setting?

The researchers sent the online survey to 750 agriculture students at Illinois State and Eastern Kentucky University, 20 percent of whom responded. Once the data were compiled, the research was presented at the 2018 Agricultural and Applied Economics Association Annual Conference, in addition to the Illinois State Research Symposium, and the Center for Teaching and Learning Teaching’s annual Teaching & Learning Symposium.

The study, targeted at a generation that will constitute 75 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2030, showed that 93 percent of respondents were self-motivated individuals. Meanwhile, the majority of survey respondents feel most motivated when the work they are doing in class directly relates to their future profession.

While smartphones, tablets, and other devices students use can cause shorter attention spans, the social media channels on those technologies can make it easier to see how classrooms can come to life.

“Based on the survey results, students consider the relevance of the material taught and its applicability to the needs of the job market as more important to their motivation than understanding how the material is linked to the course objectives,” Tetteh said.

The study also showed that many students weren’t driven by the potential earnings of their chosen profession alone but also by what impact their career could have on society.

About 65 percent of the respondents said they wanted to do well in school to find a career that makes an impact on the world around them, which was a nearly identical to the number of students who said they are motivated in the class to obtain a high-paying job.

“We want to make sure students see the relevance of content to real-life situations and their career goals,” Spaulding said. “We can also emphasize how the content is helping their desire to be a well-rounded individual since they value that.”

What might that look like? Tetteh and Spaulding sought answers to that question as well. The vast majority of the respondents said it was very important for teachers and professors to include real-world examples into a lesson.

Beginning in the fall 2018 semester, Tetteh started incorporating this strategy of bringing in current events related to the material in the teaching structure for her Financial Management and Analysis of the Agribusiness Firm course.

Before coming to class, students find news articles of their choosing that cover events and developments linked to the material, jotting down anything noteworthy they come across. They start class with student takeaways and then analyze the financial implications and developments of that product or market.

For example, one such student in Tetteh’s class trained service dogs. In what would be one of the final in-person class sessions of the semester, the student researched an article about the possible delays of pet food due to the disruptions in the global supply chain due to coronavirus (COVID-19).

On a different day, farm financial ratios were the topic of discussion. Agribusiness student Derek Durdle ’20, who planned to pursue a career in entrepreneurship, found an article talking about the increase of bankruptcies with dairy farmers in the United States. It spoke to the continued negative trends in consumer demand and increasing debt for these farmers, fueling poor farm financial ratios leading to eventual bankruptcy.

“Looking at entrepreneurship in my future, I was able to constantly apply what we were learning in class to my eventual career goals, knowing the consequences if finance ratios are not taken seriously,” said Durdle, who graduated in May.

Classmate Andrew Warnes ’20 agreed.

“I think reinforcing a topic with a real-world example or current event is beneficial to give students a tangible memory of something to relate back to the topic,” said Warnes, an agribusiness major who graduated in May.

A group of students gathers for an on-location class lesson.
Survey results showed students are most engaged when the course material is hands-on and relevant to their future career. (Editor’s note: This photograph was taken before the coronavirus pandemic.)

Collaborating with peers also scored highly in student priorities. Sixty-seven respondents strongly agreed that they were more interested in participating in classes that allowed for student discussion on the topic, where only 30 survey takers said they strongly agreed that they would rather find the answers on their own.

Spaulding has encouraged team-based projects since the beginning of her 18-year teaching career. She has noticed a trend of students preferring this type of method throughout the years, especially as technology has become so readily available and rapidly evolving.

“You no longer have to meet in person to complete a team project,” Spaulding said. “You can use OneDrive, ReggieNet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc. Students are adjusting to using these technologies, and having different options help alleviate the stress around teamwork.”

Tetteh and Spaulding are now collaborating with and collecting data from four other universities—Murray State, Kent State-Tuscarawas, Central Missouri, and Tennessee-Martin—to expand the study. The next step will be to compare the results across campuses to see if there any differences based on student locations. As for phase one of their study, they are preparing to submit a manuscript to the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Journal.

As Tetteh noted, times are always evolving in the world of academia. Classroom structure now isn’t the same as when she was a student, and it may change again by the time current students are well into their professional careers. But having a gauge of how to most effectively reach today’s students will foster academic growth, and that’s the goal Tetteh and Spaulding are working to meet.