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Lesson 2.6

Motivation:
What Motivates Students?

Students will learn if you pay them – but there’s a catch.

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Is a student’s attitude toward learning an “input” of educational success or an “outcome?”  Clearly, students have an important role to play in their own educational destiny. Learning can be a tough climb; what makes it work?

Children can be excited about learning when they feel interested in the subject at hand and understand how what they learn in school will help them in the “real world.” Admittedly, many things, from TV to friends’ antics, compete with academics for their attention. Great teachers are masters at making learning interesting and relevant, especially when supported by compelling curricular materials.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

In broad terms, there are two main approaches to making students motivated to learn: get them interested, or get them to do it anyway. Much has been written about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in education. Intrinsic motivation is desire that comes from within. When a student is fascinated with a subject, motivation to learn about it arises naturally. Boys that memorize baseball statistics are not generally doing so because they will be tested on it. Education researcher Sugata Mitra has documented some of the amazing accomplishments of 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. The best extrinsic motivators for students may be those of the temporary, fake-it-'til-you-make-it variety. They overcome a student's initial reluctance to risk an activity in order to give the student a chance to experience the pleasure of learning it.

Extrinsic motivators can also be useful in establishing and maintaining community norms. For example, KIPP, a charter school network, uses a system of extrinsic rewards usually called "paychecks" to set and reinforce clear expectations for student behavior.

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 primarily 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 by Alfie Kohn, in his book Punished by Rewards.

Of course, just being interested in a subject doesn't necessarily mean that a student will learn it. Motivation that gets you started can be different from complex factors that keep you going.

Not Yet

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. But if they believe 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. She argues with evidence that teachers and parents can influence students' mindsets in the way that they present challenges.

What interests students?

There is ample evidence that participation in sports and the arts engage young people in their schools, motivate them to do better academically, and teach them important life skills.

One reform effort gaining attention for its success at motivating high school students is called Linked Learning. This approach blends rigorous academics with career technical education to better prepare students for both college and career. Evaluations have shown students in these programs are much more engaged in what they’re learning and more likely to graduate.

As discussed in the lesson on education technology, there is significant movement toward using technology to help personalize the experience of learning, so that each student is presented with material that is neither too easy (thus dull) nor too advanced (thus frustrating). This is a promising area of work: in the end, education is about learning, which is the work that students do when they are motivated to do it. Susan Sandler (founder of Justice Matters) does a nice job of describing a broad meaning for personalization in education.

Updated May 2017 to add videos.

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Which of the following might increase students’ “intrinsic motivation”?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
April 30, 2017 at 12:13 pm
Assignments, which allow students to choose topics, is internal motivation because their choice is theirs!
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 25, 2016 at 12:05 pm
If you show a student what exemplary work looks like, does it help the student improve? Maybe not. In research by Todd Rogers of Harvard and Avi Feller of UC Berkeley, a significant number of students presented with examples of great work responded by giving up. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/01/28/0956797615623770.abstract
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 6, 2015 at 10:57 am
Research from the University of Pennsylvania adds "Self Discipline" into the mix for student success.
"Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents
http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/PsychologicalScienceDec2005.pdf
"We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 14, 2015 at 11:17 am
An interesting insight on motivation is provided by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who says that children are more motivated when they are told their intelligence or talents can grow and expand. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/april/dweck-kids-potential-042915.html
Video: Developing a Growth Mindset: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiiEeMN7vbQ
user avatar
April 30, 2017 at 12:15 pm
The teachers' views of their students and expectations are key! Remember PYGMALION IN THE CLASSROOM?
user avatar
harplits March 16, 2015 at 2:04 pm
As a strong proponent of the arts and experiential learning (think field trips) I find it a travesty when these opportunities are not made available to students. I should not have had to "bribe" the band teacher to get my son enrolled in music. How many other students are disenfranchised because their mother didn't go to bat for them? I also don't think the role of providing arts or a music teacher for a school should be relegated to the PTA. That makes arts education too capricious.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 16, 2015 at 5:39 pm
Thanks, Harplits: based on your comment, you will be interested in the statistics about arts education in Lesson 6.8, which quantifies the problem. Especially in California.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:07 am
Learning should not always be about FUN. Doing chores in the home isn't FUN yet it is a necessary skill to learn and important to maintaining a healthy home environment. That said, teachers need to motivate kids to learn content and make it relevant so they know that even if they don't think they will need that particular skill, it benefits them overall in the long term. Perhaps they don't need geometry right now or in the near future, however they may need to access that information down the road. I was most motivated to learn when my teachers showed genuine care and concern for me and told me why I may need that information down the line (of life). For example, learning to write proper business letters in high school meant nothing to me, however now I write them all the time in my profession. At least I know I was taught how to do it so I can.
user avatar
April 30, 2017 at 12:16 pm
Children do love to do chores. When teaching school, my children loved to vacuum and sweep the room! All of them!
user avatar
Paul Muench October 31, 2014 at 8:18 pm
What came first the chicken or the egg? Are we motivated to learn or do we learn to be motivated? Maybe its just all a positive feedback loop, which is why early learning is so important.
user avatar
April 30, 2017 at 12:20 pm
Agreed! Children begin as curiosity seekers, motivated to understand their environment. Their discoveries feed their motivation, which impels more discovery.
user avatar
April 30, 2017 at 12:27 pm
The great Russian Psychologist Vygotsky found that learning and motivation are a duality!
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 15, 2014 at 9:42 am
When deeply motivated, a small percentage of students may need little but access to the internet, a team to work with, and challenges that stretch them. This is the big idea behind the radical École 42, featured here in Venture Beat. http://venturebeat.com/2014/06/13/this-french-tech-school-has-no-teachers-no-books-no-tuition-and-it-could-change-everything/
user avatar
Ellen Moir March 16, 2011 at 10:53 pm
At New Teacher Center (NTC), we know how critical it is for teachers to be able to draw their students into learning. In order to do so, teachers must know their students well and use what they know to engage and connect with those students in the classroom.

At NTC, our expert teacher-mentors help new teachers become better faster to improve student learning. These mentors support new teachers in motivating their students by:

- teaching teachers to regularly, systematically, and thoughtfully “diagnose,” examine, and study students’ assets, strengths, interests, and needs in analyzing student work, and using the results of this analysis to plan differentiated, strategically targeted lessons

- introducing them to a range of materials and resources that meet students’ wide ranges of skill levels, interests, and needs

- teaching teachers how to lesson plan and supporting them in planning lessons that incorporate a range of active engagement strategies that keep students stimulated, challenged, focused, productive, and involved

- teaching teachers how to connect one-on-one with students, especially those students who seem least likely to want to connect, in ways that are emotionally as well as academically supportive

- helping teachers develop habits of mind that enable them to consider students’ disengagement as a puzzle, a challenge, an invitation to think more deeply and work more creatively to develop new ways of teaching and connecting with students who may seem to not want to learn

Ultimately, our mentors help new teachers tap into their students' interests, needs, and prior knowledge in order to create a meaningful learning experience for those students.
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
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