Self-motivating assignments

Self-motivating assignments

This post isn’t about grading, but I have to tell you: Grading is the bane of my existence. There, I’ve said it—publicly—and it feels good. If I could discover how to teach without all the grading, my outlook would skyrocket. One of the biggest reasons I feel this way is because grading 20 versions of the same assignment is, well, monotonous. A few months ago, as I was looking for a way around this, I decided to veer away from my standard major project assignment for the Project Cost & Budgeting course I teach at the Northeastern College of Professional StudiesCharlotte Graduate Campus.

As I reviewed the learning objectives with the students in the opening class, I described a few of the typical assignments we’d be working on during the course: preparing cost estimates, building budgets, integrating the budget and schedule. However, in lieu of a mid-term and final exam, they would be completing an applied research project of their own design. I gave them free reign to explore any topic related to the course learning objectives. They would then write an applied research paper (15–20 pages) and give a presentation of their findings to the class. Their paper had to have three distinct sections:

1) A description of a problem or opportunity

2) A review of relevant research and best practices

3) An application of their finding to a real-world case study or professional experience

I expected to get groans, given the open-ended nature and the requirement for a class presentation, but received something else entirely. As I spoke with students during the first break that evening, most of them were excited about the project; they wanted to explore an area of their own interest and were already thinking about how they could apply it directly to their professional work. For instance, they could all identify areas for improvement or untapped opportunities in their workplace, where they thought they could make a contribution. I was surprised at the level of enthusiasm, and a few weeks later, I was even more pleasantly surprised to see the results.

The students’ findings showed promise in addressing not only challenges in their own workplaces, but also within their broader industries. One student’s paper relating to the interior design industry was even accepted for publication. I encouraged another student to submit his paper for presentation at an upcoming Project Management conference.

Most of these students had been with me in previous classes, but their level of work was much better in this course: It was more creative, had a stronger theoretical grounding and showed solid practical application. Where did this motivation to perform at a higher level come from? Enter Daniel Pink.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Daniel Pink is author of several books about the changing world of work and how it’s reshaping our lives. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he postulates that in situations in which higher level cognitive skills are required, the carrot-and-stick form of motivation (read: a good or bad grade) can actually create mediocre performance—and, in some circumstances, that kind of reward system actually worsens performance. He cites a number of studies to show this and explains it in detail, but I’ll sum it up for you:

Essentially, what adults find motivating are opportunities that possess three factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. When people have autonomy to create and the opportunity to showcase mastery and understand how it all fits within a larger purpose, they are more motivated to step up the caliber of their performance.

I found this idea most refreshing and clarifying, and particularly relevant in light of my students’ reactions to being asked to develop and present their own applied research project. Autonomy-wise, they chose their own topic; mastery-wise, they were able to showcase their understanding of the concepts in both the written paper and before their peers; purpose-wise, students saw a concrete connection between their studies and their professional lives.

I’m convinced and have the zeal of a convert. If we design the majority of our assignments so that they contain these key elements, we can create classes that are self-motivating for students. They’ll be inspired to create work that is at a higher level, that supports real-world applications, and that will encourage them to think beyond earning a grade.

And incidentally—those assignments were much more enjoyable to grade.

Stay tuned for a future post in which I’ll weigh in on with some specifics on how to design assignments like these, that will motivate students to perform at a higher level.

About Joseph Griffin

Joseph A. Griffin is a faculty member in the Master of Science in Project Management program. He is a certified Project Management Professional as well as an active member of the local and international chapters of the Project Management Institute and the U.S. Green Building Council. Previously, Mr. Griffin worked in the residential construction industry as a project manager for numerous construction and land development projects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Scroll To Top