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Date Author Title
2014-09-01 Steve Gardiner Tips on Student Motivation--Part 1


This is Part 1 of the three-part series on student motivation.

Tips for Fostering Student Motivation

There are moments that make teaching the best profession in the world. A room full of students with books and ereaders in front of them are deeply involved in silent reading. A lab of students stare at computer monitors as a symphony of clicking keys reflect thoughts being organized and expressed. Small groups of students struggle with the meaning of a book chapter, sharing ideas about an author's meaning and purpose. Times like these, when students are motivated, engaged, and productive, are the ones that teachers live for.

Student motivation is the subject of many journal articles, convention presentations, and teacher discussions. It is a critical topic because motivation is tied closely to student engagement, behavior, discipline, attendance, learning, and achievement. It is also closely tied to teacher job satisfaction and retention in the profession.

Motivation is complex

One of the problems, however, is that motivation is a complex topic. It can't be seen. It can't be touched. It is a hypothetical construct which cannot be measured precisely and can, at best, be judged by what students say and do (Wlodkowski, 1999).

For many parents and teachers, motivation means rewards--giving stickers or prizes, allowing a privilege, or providing a word of praise (Kohn, 1999). This type of motivation is extrinsic motivation, and because the student actions are based on receiving the external reward, the motivation usually ceases as soon as the rewards stop showing up. This type of motivation is excessive, and is most often detrimental to students (Pink, 2009).

Striving for genuine motivation

What we really want is intrinsic motivation, genuine motivation that comes from within the student and creates curiosity, inspiration, and engagement (Deci, 1995). The problem is that many students don't feel that intrinsic motivation. In fact, of the 42,754 students from 27 states who participated in the Survey of Student Engagement (Yazzi-Mintz, 2010), 49% reported being bored in school every day and 17% reported being bored in every class. Only 2% of high school students taking the survey stated that they were never bored in school. So what can be done to remove the boredom and increase the intrinsic motivation of students in our schools?

  1. Introductory Survey. On the first day of class, I give students a survey which asks them to explain their attitudes towards school, their personal interests, their experiences with teachers in the past, and what they want and need from me. It is simple, takes only a few minutes, but it gives me some information to put with a face as I learn their names and develop a relationship with each of them. This information helps when I meet with them to discuss research topics or subjects for writing assignments. Interestingly enough, students often mention this survey later with comments like, “No one ever asked me what I thought about school before,” or “I thought it was great that you wanted to know what I was interested in.” This relationship and sense of belonging can go a long way toward helping a student's motivation.

  2. Autonomy Support. Students want some control over their own educations, but many teachers are afraid or concerned about giving up the control. Students don't want chaos. They want autonomy with structure (Jang, Reeve, & Deci, 2010). They want to make choices, but not choices that are so complicated that they create anxiety and become “choice overload” (Katz and Assor, 2007). Allowing students to choose between several activities, design which type of assignment they want to do, select their own topics, or determine the best way to use classtime are all excellent examples of an autonomy-supportive classroom. Deci (1995) argued that teachers “who were more oriented toward supporting their students' autonomy had a more positive impact on their students than did the control-oriented teachers. The students of autonomy-supportive teachers were more curious and master-oriented, and they evidenced higher self-esteem” (p. 143). Giving students some control may go a long ways toward improving their motivation.

    Part 2 will look at challenge and skill, student passions, adult modeling, and

    rewards/praise as concerns in thinking about student motivation.

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