Richard Koestner

Faculty of Science

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

I try to present the material in a way that is accessible and that students can relate to. My area of research is intrinsic motivation—learning for its own sake, learning because you are curious. So, I try to talk about interesting material in a conversational way and in a way that acknowledges the students’ experience and their perspectives. My sense is that soon after a course ends, students will forget most of the detailed factual information they’ve learned, so I try to cover general concepts, pose thought-provoking questions, and present interesting material so that students will find the course relevant and meaningful to their own lives.

In terms of structure, I try to make every lecture a self-enclosed unit. Thus I’ll start with a “question of the day” and several subquestions. Then I’ll get into a story and some examples. And the next class will be a new topic but with the same structure rather than just a review or a rehash of what we’ve covered to date. I believe that students benefit from having whole, self-contained lectures, even if some elements are missing.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

I have 430 students in the Human Motivation course, thus I can only give multiple-choice questions on exams. Every year, however, some students tell me, “I don’t do well on multiple-choice tests,” so I give them some options. For example, the midterm can count for 50% or it can count for 30%, whatever works better for them. Then they have two or three optional papers, which can count for up to 35%, depending on if they prefer multiple-choice tests or papers.

I’d like to be clear that I do not use tests and evaluations as a way to control, motivate or manipulate. Too often, I hear professors say things like, “You really should pay attention to this because it could be on the test.” I will never do that! Professors have to get students interested in the material and not because it is going to be on a test. My ultimate goal in the classroom is to give a definitive answer to a student question like, “Why should I care about this?”

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

I try to teach the course so that it does not really matter whether they are in the discipline or not. I want them to learn to think about how they try to motivate themselves and how others have tried to motivate them, and I want them to question the prevailing emphasis on rewards, praise, competition, and attributing good performance to talent and ability. So, I try to challenge them to think differently from how they’ve probably been trained to think.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

In the first class, I tell them who I am, who I studied with, how I got interested in psychology, etc., as an entry point into research in my field. During the lectures, I use examples like stories, biographies and video clips to make clear the constructs and research I’m covering. While I outline the research methodologies, I take a more concept-oriented approach to the material. For instance, I might start with a surprising example of motivation—such as a doctor threatening to kick a smoker off his caseload if the patient doesn’t give up cigarettes in three months—and review the facts and the research to support or refute that type of motivation.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

I would say to young professors: Find out what you can be good at and what you enjoy, and find a way to integrate that into your teaching. They should know that teaching can often be more satisfying than their research because they have a live, receptive audience in front of them, one that is often hungering for interesting material. Since there are many different ways to be a good teacher, it’s important to ask yourself, “What can I do to connect with my students?” For some people that may be doing math problems on the board and showing their passion for that. For me, it is telling stories and showing video clips.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

I often tell my students, “My guess is that you really loved psychology in CEGEP. There you had small classes and you got to write essays, talk with your classmates and your teachers all the time. And it is very likely, now that you are at McGill, that you find it is a more impersonal environment, more competitive and evaluative. I suspect that, unfortunately, your love and passion for psychology may have plummeted.”

To these students I say, “First, just acknowledge this new reality.” And here I think my course serves a useful purpose for many of them because they learn a great deal about how much we are controlled, including in surprising ways. So they need to consider what their motivations are and whether they should be (or not be) in a large, impersonal program. Importantly, they need to find ways to connect with other students as well as their professors. In the end, they have to find a way to make the course interesting and relevant despite a format they are probably not familiar with.

Why do you teach?

A number of years ago I realized that teaching is a flow activity for me. Flow activities are those that are optimal experiences for individuals—activities that completely absorb us, whether it is rock climbing, knitting, playing guitar, etc. So now I try to structure my life so that I cross-country ski 50 times a year, play golf 50 times a year, and give 50 lectures a year. Teaching is rewarding because I feel I am doing something meaningful.


Photo by Owen Egan

Contact Information
Email address: 
richard.koestner [at]

My ultimate goal in the classroom is to give a definitive answer to a student question like, 'Why should I care about this?'

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