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Center for Teaching Excellence

East Tennessee State University

Purpose Motive

Purpose Motive
Why is a Purpose Motive Useful?

Which type of institution would you rather work for: One that focuses almost exclusively on turning a profit, or one that directs its energies toward a higher purpose, such as sharing knowledge, creating ethical and productive citizens, or improving the community?

Most will answer the latter.

Daniel Pink (2009) explains that purpose motives are incredibly motivating to individuals, which is why we may volunteer precious free time toward a cause like Habitat for Humanity. It's why Wikipedia is so successful. People like working when the goal or organization "stands for something" or contributes to society in some way.

The key to introducing purpose in a course is to ensure students understand the relevance of the material. Pink (2009) suggests encouraging students of any age to ask:

Why am I learning this? How is it relevant to the world I live in now? (p. 190)


How Can I Create a Purpose Motive in my Course?

1. Introduce the overarching relevance of your course material at the beginning of the semester.

  • Be clear from the beginning why learning your courses content is relevant to students. Who will it help? How? How can knowledge of this material help students to be better contributors to society/humanity?

2. Structure assignments around higher-purpose contexts.

  • Whether you send students out to experience a context first-hand or simply word a case study in a meaningful context, you can reinforce the relevance of your content. Consider a culminating course project that has higher purpose as a goal.
  • Examples:
      • Interior Architecture - Take students to a shelter to experience the restrictions of limited resources, then submit plans for how to repurpose materials and improve the space.
      • Engineering -Word a project or problem around the context of levy construction (strength, durability, height), referencing the instances of Hurricane Katrina and other Mississippi floods.
      • Business - Have students analyze a business plan that emphasizes 'purpose maximization' while remaining economically viable, such as TOMS Shoes.

3. Allow students to determine the relevance.

  • Although you may want to introduce the relevance of your course at the beginning of the semester, you can begin to put the responsibility for conclusions about the relevance of specific topics onto students. This can be done as informal discussions, or as part of a homework assignment. (Bonus: You might get new perspectives using this strategy!)
  • Examples:
      • "Why is it important to know this information?"
      • "How can you use this information to improve the world in some way?"
      • Set the context and let students provide the rest: "Imagine you were in [inner-city New York]. What can we do with this information that could improve conditions there?"

4. Allow students to choose their own purpose for a project.

  • Emphasizing both purpose and autonomy, this strategy allows students to follow a purpose close to their own hearts, while applying the information learned in your course.
  • Examples:
      • Education - Have students create a lesson plan that teaches children about an important purpose, such as prosocial skills or good nutrition.
      • Art - Have students find an art showing that draws attention to a cause of their choice, and then create a piece of art that would either fictitiously or actually be submitted to that showing to be juried.
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