Student Motivation Matters: 25 Tips and Strategies

Learning, PreK-12

A new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching reviews what we know about student motivation.  

Motivation Matters: How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement, by Susan Headden and Sarah McKay, is a competent review of current research. Following are 25 nuggets.  

  1. Motivation, from the Latin movere, “to move”, “describes students’ desire to engage in learning and do well. More precisely, psychologists define it as the directing of energy and passion toward a goal; it is what starts, directs, sustains, and stops behavior. Motivation is shaped by attitudes that influence the level of students’ engagement in their learning; that is, it influences how actively involved students are in their work—thus how hard they work—and it determines the extent to which they persevere in the face of obstacles.”
  1. Motivation is a complex cocktail that includes a “student’s belief that he is able to do the work, a sense of control over the work, an understanding of the value of the work, and an appreciation for how he and the work relate to a social group.”
  1. Motivation is influenced by instruction including “how academic content is taught and how students interact with and practice that content.”
  1. Motivation is also affected by life experiences both in and out of school. In the classroom, recent research shows that so-called “toxic stress” brought about by such problems as hunger or homelessness can show up in students as distraction, lack of self-control, and distrust of others.”

Risk of rewards

  1. There is some evidence of the benefit of paying for positive behaviors (e.g., reading) rather than final outcomes (e.g., grades). But, “Research shows that simply dangling dollar bills in front of students is not in itself a solution to the problem of student motivation.”
  1. “One overarching problem with rewards is that they ignore the value of the task. They allow the educator to disregard his role in making learning more meaningful.”

Changing mindsets

  1. “Data clearly suggests that it’s not just academic ability that determines motivation, but also the capacities and character traits like resilience, self-confidence, and tenacity that help students stay the course as the emotional path grows rougher and the learning curve steeper. Students with “growth mindsets”, by contrast, believe that with effort, their ability and performance can improve.
  1. “Mindsets apply not only to academics—to the attitudes that students have about their intellectual abilities—they also apply to what students believe is their rightful place in school.”
  1. “Worries about “belongingness” and the phenomenon of “stereotype threat” depress motivation and achievement.” Carol Dweck notes, “When stereotypes are evoked, they fill people’s minds with distracting thoughts — with secret worries about confirming the stereotype.” But it’s also clear that “educators can counter its potential ill effects with small interventions that can make a big difference.”
  1. There is a “clear correlations between growth mindset and a higher number of passing grades and lower rates of course withdrawal.” Students are motivated to take the extra academic step when they perceived their teachers’ feedback as a genuine desire to help them rather than as an expression of indifference or bias.
  1. “Grit” — what Duckworth defines as passion and perseverance for long-term goals, the ability to stick with a task — is a better predictor of success in school and beyond than income and standardized test scores.
  1. “Self-control can be taught by equipping children with specific strategies.”
  1. However, “Mindset interventions don’t work for everybody, and if they are deployed improperly, or with the wrong students, they could even backfire. Researchers also stress that mindset interventions are not about “fixing” students with inherent deficiencies or insecurities.”

Building relationships

  1. “Another promoter of student motivation, according to research, is an educational environment that helps students develop and maintain positive, meaningful relationships with adults and peers at school. In other words, students care when they feel cared about.”
  1. “Numerous studies have shown that having the reliable support of a ‘pro-social’ adult strongly protects students against the consequences of even the worst psychological trauma. All else being equal, students achieve at higher rates, and are less likely to drop out and feel more positively about school, when they have ongoing connections with teachers.”
  1. “Students are, to some degree, products of their social groups. Peer pressure, a phenomenon usually associated with negative influences, can also serve as a positive force.”
  1. Advisory structures that promote safe conversations and sustained relationships produce positive results. The morning meetings set the tone for the day and encourage students to work well in groups. (See the 15 key ingredients of a good advisory.)

Challenges to scaling

  1. “Accurate gauges of motivation and other noncognitive skills would help educators diagnose students, target remediation and enrichment, improve programs, and assess the effectiveness of entire systems.” But current measures aren’t good enough to be incorporated into high-stakes accountability systems.
  1. “A considerable challenge to implementing motivation-enhancing strategies is the need to train teachers to do it well. Traditional teacher education programs provide novices little help in this regard.”
  1. Turnaround for Children, a non-profit organization that partners with high-need public schools, is one initiative that helps teachers boost motivation in a targeted, sustained, school-wide way. Turnaround says, 10 to 15 percent of students in their partner schools are stressed to the point where they can disrupt learning for everyone; the schools are so chaotic that teachers and students can barely function in them, let alone thrive.”
  1. “Every day teachers learn new things about motivating their students, and researchers regularly uncover insights by collecting and analyzing data. But too rarely do these practitioners and researchers work in concert. At the same time, each school, classroom, and student may need something very different to realize its goals.”
  1. A nationwide network of school districts, organizations, and colleges is using this method of continuous improvement to test interventions for enhancing student motivation. The network, known as the Student Agency Improvement Community (SAIC), is made up of six groups: New York City Department of Education, Harrisonburg City Schools, Summit Public Schools, Schools That Lead of Delaware, High Tech High, and the Community College Pathways network
  1. “It is only with better teacher training, more reliable measurement, and a stronger connection between research and practice that this work can scale, promising sizeable benefits for public schools.”
  1. “It’s increasingly clear that both the “no-excuses” camp and the “poverty-fighters” are right. Continued lagging achievement indicates that schools and educators must be held to higher standards. But it now seems equally apparent, and increasingly so, that schools must not only provide rigorous academic instruction, but must also develop in their students the habits of mind required to embrace that instruction.”
  1. “Promoting non-academic engagement does not mean reducing emphasis on academic learning. On the contrary, when students are conscientious, persistent, and open to new ideas, they are far more likely to succeed academically. And the research has demonstrated that with thoughtful, integrated curricula these capacities can be taught, as well as enhanced with simple interventions.”

Research gap

While this paper is a great summary of academic research on motivation, it stops short of illuminating the path forward.

Personalized learning is the new meme in education, a hunch that if achievement and completion rates will jump if students are able to learn on their own path and pace.

With a lot more real time learning data (formative assessment) it has become easy to pinpoint progress on learning trajectories, but we still don’t have reliable ways to build a motivation profile–an appreciation for the types of experiences that individual students need to produce persistence and performance.  

In our new book Smart Parents, we argued that parents and students should monitor what motivates learning and be intentional about seeking more of these experiences while building resilience and self control in other areas.

Better measures will allow parents and teachers to manage a motivational profile that will help queue a sequence of powerful learning experiences. Imagine homework as digital sequence of games, reading passages, and challenges customized for each learner not only by level by experience type.  

Motivational preferences will prove to be more important than learning style preferences. I think we’ll find that motivation matters.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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