When I ask teachers what their biggest struggles are, one issue comes up on a regular basis: student motivation. You are able to reach many of your students, but others are unreachable. No matter what you try, they have no interest in learning, no interest in doing quality work, and you are out of ideas.
For a long time, I had no solutions; the problem was too complex. I have had my own unmotivated students, and I never had any magic bullets for them. Still, the issue kept coming up from my readers.
So I decided to do some research, to try to find what the most current studies say about what motivates students. This is what I found:
Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.
Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.
I have put together a list of five questions we can ask ourselves to see if we really are doing everything we could to boost student motivation. To keep me from getting too preachy, I’ll do the exercise with you, reflecting on the years when I was a teacher during my National Youth Service Days.
Okay, let’s go.
- HOW IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR STUDENTS, REALLY?
Multiple studies have shown a significant connection between student motivation and the quality of the teacher-student relationship. A good teacher-student relationship provides students with a sense of stability and safety, which sets the stage for more academic risk-taking.
So what kind of relationship do you have with your least motivated students? How well do you really know them? Do you have conversations with them about the things they care about? Or have you more or less given up on them?
- ARE YOU RELYING HEAVILY ON CARROTS AND STICKS…OR JOLLY RANCHERS?
Many, many teachers count on rewards (“carrots”) and punishments (“sticks”) to motivate students. And those who study motivation tell us that extrinsic reinforcement can be motivating if the task is something easy: If you’re trying to get students to clean up the classroom quickly, for example, offering class points toward a party can get them to speed up. But for tasks that require creativity and complex thought, extrinsic rewards actually reduce motivation. In your class, how much of your motivational approach is extrinsic?
How often do you use grades, treats, privileges or punishments to prod students into doing something they don’t really want to do, something they have no real interest in? If extrinsic reinforcement is your primary approach, you may actually be killing off any natural motivation students might have otherwise had.
- . HOW MUCH CHOICE DO YOUR STUDENTS ACTUALLY HAVE?
Study after study points to choice as a major factor in motivation. Most of us have probably heard this, but we may not have fully embraced it. After all, providing choice can be messy, with students completing different tasks at different rates, making it hard to be consistent with grading. It can also mean a lot more prep work: If you’re going to give students three different options for an assignment, that means you have to prepare all three options ahead of time.
Or do you? Isn’t that kind of prep work more in line with worksheet-oriented teaching, where students are doing low-level work that was largely prepared by the teacher? If students are engaged in more long-term, authentic, creative projects, it’s much easier to provide them with choices, because we aren’t constantly trying to provide them with new busywork every day.
- DO YOUR WORDS CONTRIBUTE TO A GROWTH MINDSET OR A FIXED MINDSET?
What could be wrong with saying “You’re so smart”? It’s nice, right? It boosts their confidence, no? Well, it’s more complicated than that. Students are motivated to persist at a challenging task when they believe they can get better at it. That requires them to have a growth mindset, a belief that their intelligence and abilities can be developed with effort.
Teachers can have an impact on this mindset with the things we say to students. So when we say “You’re so smart,” “You have natural math ability,” or “You’re a great writer,” we are telling the student it’s their natural ability that got them where they are. We’re contributing to a fixed mindset. And that’s not motivating.
- WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MAKE YOUR CONTENT RELEVANT TO STUDENTS’ LIVES?
I think this is another one of those principles that’s been around for so long, we assume we’re doing it more than we actually are. But showing students how the content relates to their lives really does make a difference.
When students believe they are doing something authentic, something that will improve their lives or have some kind of impact, they are naturally motivated. So how are you doing in this area? Do you regularly provide opportunities for students to connect what they’re learning to the world they currently live in?
So pick one area and start there. Make a small adjustment this week and see what happens. Share in the comments where you think you could improve, then come back and tell us what changes made a difference. To solve a problem as complicated as student motivation, there is no magic bullet; instead we’ll need a set of tools that we blend and refine over time. This is a process that will definitely be slower and more frustrating than a single, easy solution, but you’re professional. This is your craft. You can do this.