Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #3: Teaching with Enthusiasm: Engaging Students, Sparking Curiosity, and Jumpstarting Motivation

February 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

Teacher enthusiasm is generally recognized as one of the most essential and desirable qualities and characteristics of effective teachers. Derived from the Greek origin meaning “possessed by a god,” the term“enthusiasm” often is used in instruction to connote a motivating, energetic, passionate, and dynamic teaching style. An enthusiastic teacher often spices the class with excitement, enjoyment, and anticipation; engages students to participate; and stimulates them to explore. Thus, teacher enthusiasm sparks the curiosity of students and jumpstarts their motivation to learn. Teacher enthusiasm can lead to better teaching evaluations, positive attitudes toward teachers, better student performance, and improved classroom behavior. 

Student engagement is widely regarded as an effective antidote to declining academic motivation and performance and increasing alienation and boredom. Although student behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement can be influenced by a myriad of contextual factors, including teachers, peers, family, community, and culture, the teacher variable assumes a crucial role in determining student engagement in the classroom. Teacher support and caring have been found to be pivotal to student engagement.

Students can be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to learn. For intrinsically motivated students, engaging in a learning task is an end all to itself, so they learn for reasons such as mastery, challenge, curiosity, and enjoyment. However, extrinsically motivated students, engaging in a learning task is the means to an end, so they learn for reasons such as performances, grades, rewards, and evaluations relative to others. One’s motivation to learn is subject to the influence of social and external contexts, but teacher emotion has been identified as an important source of student motivation to learn.

To examine the effects of teacher enthusiasm on student engagement and motivation to learn, I recruited 165 college students to complete a survey in reference to the class immediately preceding the research session. Students were asked to rate their perceptions of the enthusiasm the instructor displayed in the classroom; provide a self-assessment of their behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement; and rate their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to learn.

Results indicated teacher enthusiasm had a significant influence on student engagement in the classroom. The more enthusiastic and dynamic teachers were, the more engaged students became, behaviorally, cognitively, and emotionally. This finding makes sense because student engagement is malleable and responsive to teachers’ emotions and teaching styles, and positive emotions likely produce pro-social behaviors.

Interestingly, teacher enthusiasm seemed to have a weaker effect on student behavioral engagement than on cognitive and emotional engagement. Two explanations can be offered here. First, enthusiastic teachersmotivate students to engage behaviorally, but even when teachers are extremely boring, dull, and unenthusiastic in the classroom, students may still follow rules, pay attention, avoid getting into trouble, and complete homework on time because these behaviors could directly affect their final grades for the course. Thus, students are likely to engage behaviorally in the class for the sake of grades even in the absence of teacher enthusiasm.

Second, the powerful effect of teacher enthusiasm on student emotional engagement may be related to emotional contagion, wherein teachers transfer their enthusiasm and energy to students. Indeed, emotions can occur internally, but they are largely shared and contagious, creating collective emotions. Consequently, this emotional engagement also may promote students’ psychological investment in learning, enhance their willingness to master more challenging tasks, and stimulate more cognitive engagement.

Results also showed that teacher enthusiasm was an effective predictor of student intrinsic motivation, but not a significant predictor of student extrinsic motivation. Teacher enthusiasm served as a positive external catalyst facilitating student interest, curiosity, and intrinsic motivation to learn. Since teacher enthusiasm is contagious and social, students may have converged emotionally and mimicked the teacher’s positive energy consciously or unconsciously. As a result they became more passionate and intrinsically motivated to master the task. Intriguingly, teacher enthusiasm was not a significant predictor of student extrinsic motivation. Perhaps this is because students who were motivated to learn by enthusiastic teachers were more oriented toward knowledge, competence, and ability than toward grades, performance, and rewards. Enthusiastic teachers appeared to motivate students to master content more than to outperform others.

The findings offer important practical implications for educators. Although teacher enthusiasm is not a panacea for all behavior problems in the classroom, it is a powerful source of student behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement, as well as intrinsic goal orientation. When students perceive their teachers as enthusiastic, dynamic, and energetic, they are more likely to be interested, curious, intrinsically motivated to learn, and engage behaviorally, cognitively, and emotionally. It appears that the more enthusiasm teachers exhibit in the classroom, the more efficacious, engaged, and excited students become about learning, and the more motivated they become in pursuing the task at hand.

Thus, teachers need to be particularly cognizant of the infectious ripple effects of emotional contagion in the classroom. Emotional convergence and collective affect generally occur in groups, and in the classroomstudents typically model, mimic, and thus acquire teachers’ emotions displayed in their teaching. Enthusiastic teachers can “rub off” their enthusiasm on students, fostering an increased incidence of pro-social, supportive, and cooperative behavior. Conversely, teachers’ negative emotions may provoke an increased presence of anti-social, disruptive, and deviant behavior. Hence, to facilitate student engagement and enhance student intrinsic motivation to learn, teachers are advised to be enthusiastic and positive in the classroom even if they sometimes must engage in emotional labor by acting in a positive, enthusiastic, and cheerful way.

About the author (s)

Qin Zhang

Fairfield University