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Students have an important role to play in their own educational destiny. Learning can be a tough climb, though. What motivates students to learn and succeed?
Children can get excited about learning for all kinds of great reasons. But learning involves effort, and the world is full of things that want attention. Great teachers are masters at making learning engaging and relevant, especially when supported by compelling curricular materials.
Broadly, there are two main approaches to motivating students to learn: get them interested… or get them to do it anyway. Researchers have written much about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in education.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within. When a student is fascinated with a subject, motivation to learn about it arises naturally. Children that memorize baseball statistics are not doing so because they will be tested on it. Education researcher Sugata Mitra has documented some of the amazing accomplishments made by children in India who band together to learn subjects that interest them.
There are two main approaches to making students motivated to learn: get them interested, or get them to do it anyway
Extrinsic motivation (which comes from without) is always second-best, but it is also important. The classic extrinsic motivator in school is the letter grade: Never mind if it’s interesting, do your homework! Parent bribes fit in the same category.
Sometimes, extrinsic motivators can help a student fake-it-'til-they-make-it. They overcome a student's initial reluctance to try an activity in order to give them a chance to take pleasure in learning it.
Extrinsic motivators can also establish and maintain community norms. For example, KIPP, a charter school network, developed a system of extrinsic rewards called paychecks to set and reinforce clear expectations for student behavior. Many educators have adopted exit tickets, a related approach, to encourage or enforce participation.
Daniel H. Pink's book Drive summarizes research about motivation, and makes a persuasive argument about the risks of relying heavily on extrinsic motivation. Though originally intended for a business audience, his work has found significant readership in the education sector. Prior to Pink's book, the most notable work in this vein was Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn.
Of course, just being interested in a subject doesn't mean a student will learn it. Motivation that gets you started can be different from the complex factors that keep you going.
Carol Dweck describes student motivation in education as a matter of mindset. When students believe that they can learn anything with effort, they can sustain their attention and energy, and accomplish amazing things. Dweck calls this a growth mindset.
On the other hand, if a student believes that their capacity to learn is fixed, they limit themselves. Statements like "I'm bad at math" or "I'm not a good student" have a way of making themselves true. Dweck points to evidence that teachers and parents can influence students' mindsets by changing the way that they present challenges.
There is ample evidence that participation in sports and the arts engages young people in their schools, motivates them to do better academically, and teaches them important life skills.
One reform effort that has shown success at motivating high school students is linked learning. This approach blends rigorous academics with technical education to prepare students for college and career. Evaluations have shown students in these programs have improved skills in communication and collaboration, as well as being more likely to graduate.
As discussed in the Ed100 lesson on education technology, schools are moving toward technology that can help personalize learning in multiple ways. Tech can present each student with material that is neither too easy (thus dull) nor too advanced (thus frustrating). A.I. shows promise as a tutoring aid to help students grapple with learning or practicing material.
Teachers can awaken motivation in students by presenting material in an interesting way, but consider the competition! Countless distractions are always just a click away. What makes students choose to do the work of learning when they could easily choose to do something else?
Part of the answer is relationships, as master educator Rita Pierson explains in this brief video:
Students choose to learn partly because the work they do matters to someone who matters to them. Parents, peers, tutors, and teachers all play a role in how students feel about the work of learning.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to implement distance learning, teachers faced an entirely new challenge: how to develop and sustain relationships with students and among students in ways that could support learning. Connecting with a large class is difficult in person; through a screen, it feels like bad TV. Most teachers and schools quickly realized that back-to-back video lectures to a full class would be exhausting and ineffective, although virtual breakout groups and mentoring improved the process somewhat.
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