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Motivating Students To Learn

Motivating Students to Learn



Student motivation is a major factor impacting student achievement in school. Therefore, effective efforts by teachers to foster student interest and motivation toward learning should be understood and encouraged.  Currently, we are not doing enough as educators to foster student motivation in our schools and classrooms.


My experience as a teacher has been that most teachers recognize the importance of student motivation and sincerely want their students to be motivated and to achieve.  We devote a lot of time discussing struggling and unmotivated students in our faculty meetings.  We pull these students aside for one on one discussions.  We offer to help.  We communicate our concerns with parents.  We spend planning and lunch time with these students.  We come to school early and stay late in an effort to help, and many of us lose sleep thinking about them.  Unfortunately, more often than not, the time and energy we put into our struggling students doesn’t translate into much improvement.  Why?  Well, for one, motivating unmotivated students is very difficult.  Secondly, many teachers are not trained in motivation theory and pedagogy, and, therefore, don’t fully understand how to effectively motivate their students.  Further complicating matters is the fact that many teachers ultimately develop a belief that it’s “not their job” to motivate students, that motivating students is a student/parent issue, not a teacher issue (I believe this stems from a sense of helplessness on the part of teachers).  The efforts to help students listed above typically focus on improving student achievement, not improving student motivation to achieve, and this is largely why the efforts aren’t very fruitful.


While there is no unified psychological theory of motivation, and motivation continues to be complex and incompletely understood, we do know a few things about effectively motivating students (actually quite a bit), and there are concrete steps teachers can take to foster student motivation.  Here are a few:


1 – do your best to develop positive working relationships with all of your students.  This might seem like a no-brainer, but many teachers are not putting enough time and energy into developing their student-teacher relationships, and this is especially true with unmotivated students, students that are hard to relate to, and students with negative attitudes in class.  It’s impossible to connect positively with every student, but we must try.  Learn your students’ names asap.  Smile and greet them warmly at the start of class.  Treat students with respect.  Be consistent and fair.  Get to know your students’ interests and activities outside of class.  Be empathic, put yourselves in your students’ shoes.  Finally, if you’ve worked hard to connect with a student without much success, get another teacher involved.  Perhaps it’s just a personality difference and the student will get more from spending time getting help from a different teacher.


2 – demonstrate interest and curiosity in your subject.  If you are disinterested in the material you are teaching, your kids will be disinterested.  If you demonstrate interest, your students will pick up on that.  This is a major problem in education.  Unfortunately, there are too many teachers that are teaching things they simply don’t find interest or value in, and this is negatively impacting student motivation and achievement.  If you’re disinterested, find a way to get interested, teach something else or teach the concept in a different way.  Invite a guest speaker who is interested and can inject passion into the subject.  Worst case: fake interest.  Many students will be able to see through this (especially older students), but it’s certainly better than the alternative.


3 – help students develop mastery goals.  In general, students will develop either mastery or performance goals.  While both can lead to achievement, mastery goals are preferred from both a motivational and an educational perspective.  Students with mastery goals approach assignments with the intent to learn and understand the material as the goal in and of itself.  Students with performance goals approach assignments with a focus on their performance relative to other students.  While performance goals can lead to high achievement, the intent and purpose is not ideal.  It can be very difficult to learn how to effectively help students develop mastery goals, but it should be a focus in every classroom.  One way teachers can help students develop mastery goals is by focusing on learning outcomes.  For example, rather than tell students to read chapter 3 for homework, we can tell students to use the information in chapter 3 to learn x, y, and z.  Or, rather than tell students to study for Tuesday’s test, teachers can provide a list of learning objectives for students to master which will be assessed on Tuesday.  Simply consistently reminding students of the importance of approaching their schoolwork for the sake of learning can be very effective.  Essentially, if teachers change their focus to mastering learning objectives, students will begin to change their focus as well.


4 – provide students with a sense autonomy.  Students who feel a sense of autonomy and control in their learning are more likely to be motivated.  Teachers can increase student autonomy through choice.  While it can be very challenging to allow students choice in terms of what they will learn, it is not overly difficult to allow students choice in how they will learn or how they will be assessed.  For example, a science teacher interested in teaching students about photosynthesis might allow students to choose between creating a physical model of the process, writing a paper, developing a presentation for the class, creating a teaching lesson and implementing it, etc.  Or, when assessing students, the teacher could allow students to choose between several test options: multiple choice, short answer, essay, etc.  The choices do not need to be numerous, simply allowing some choice can go a long way.


5 – develop students’ sense of competence and confidence.  Not surprisingly, struggling students tend to have low self-efficacy (the sense that they can and will succeed at a given task or subject with reasonable effort).  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard students say things like, “I suck at math.”  Really?  First, that’s a bold, broad statement.  What does that even mean exactly?  All math?  Countless studies have demonstrated that students’ beliefs are self-fulfilling.  Right now, you have students in your class that believe they are not capable of meeting your expectations.  If they continue to believe that, they will continue to struggle.  To increase student self-efficacy, provide clear expectations, scaffold your instruction to ensure that your struggling students understand how to meet your expectations, and make sure your students (in particular your struggling students) attribute their successes to their own efforts and abilities.


All of the above practices are based on specific, research-supported theories of motivation.  From a more general perspective I would say this: as a teacher, like it or not, you are an entertainer.  By this, I do not mean you need to act whacky, or that your class needs to be “fun” every day, or that your kids need to think you’re funny.  It means that you need to do what every entertainer needs to do: engage the interest of your audience.  And, yes, it is your responsibility.  You won’t be perfect, and that’s ok.  However, the sooner you accept the responsibility of engaging and inspiring your students and work hard to do so, the sooner your will take your teaching and your students’ learning to the next level.