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Date Author Title
2014-10-01 Steve Gardiner Tips on Student Motivation--Part 2


This is Part 2 of a three-part series on student motivation.

Part 1 introduced the concept of student motivation and explained the

introduction survey and autonomy support as motivating factors.

Part 2 will look at four other concerns.


    4. Challenge and Skill. Finding the right balance between challenge and skill is a difficult, but critical task. Student choice may be very helpful here, because students are often a good judge of their own ability in a subject area and given the chance, may choose a task that provides a “Just-right challenge” (Almqvist et al., 2007). Finding the right balance can lead to a pleasant state of mind called flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, see sidebar) in which the students gets absorbed in the activity to the point of losing track of time. When students make comments like “Wow, this class went really fast,” they likely have been involved in a flow activity. I have explained flow to my students many times. They understand it quickly and recognize their own experiences with it. They can easily list times when they have experienced the feeling of flow (playing video games, musical instruments, chess, word puzzles, and sports, or creating artwork and computer programs). When the balance of challenge and skill are right, it results in not only flow, but an opportunity to demonstrate competence or mastery which is very motivational.

    5. Student passion. Ask students how they found their best friends, and they will likely say something like, “We were on the same baseball team in the summer,” or “We started talking about music and found out we like the same artists.” There are no end to the personal passions students bring to class (and they can list them very well on the introductory survey in Tip One). These personal passions carry a heavy dose of motivation with them, because they involve choice and autonomy, help skill meet challenge, and set up frequent flow experiences. Students can use these personal passions in many ways (research topics, demonstration speeches, group activities, subjects for experiments). Teachers should take advantage of the motivational power that is naturally built into these personal passions.

    6. Adult modeling. It is no surprise that students look to their teachers, administrators, coaches, and parents for guidance. Adults can model enthusiasm for learning, through what they do as well as what they say. Students quickly learn that the atmosphere in one teacher's room is different from another teacher's room. They are good at taking cues from adults and teachers can use this innate skill to pass on many important lessons. For example, when we begin our first booktalk as part of our independent reading program, I talk first and share my thoughts on a book I have recently read. I may comment on the author, the theme of the book, an interesting event, or how a character developed. With me setting that example, my students are usually more comfortable when it is their turn to share. Brooks (1991) said that adults not only teach the lessons, but help students learn about themselves, feel a sense of support, and understand their own learning and motivation. Brooks also said that adults help students find their strengths because “those who are teaching and raising children have the responsibility to find and build upon these islands of competence so that they will soon become more prominent than the ocean of self-doubt” (p. 31). That adult-student relationship cannot be underestimated in determining levels of student motivation.

    7. Rewards and praise. Often thought to be the key to student motivation, rewards and praise must be used carefully, because students quickly figure out that rewards and praise are most often meant to benefit the giver rather than the receiver. As soon as that is either true, or perceived to be true, both rewards and praise have a negative effect on motivation because they become controlling and remove autonomy. It is very easy to start handing out rewards to get the desired behavior, but very difficult to remove those rewards, because we end up with students who, as Dweck (2006) said, won't do anything unless they know they will get a sticker. The most dangerous praise, she says, is to tell a student how smart he is. It is better to praise the student “for taking initiative, for seeing a difficult task through, for struggling and learning something new, for being undaunted by a setback, or for being open to and acting on criticism” (Dweck, 2006, p. 137). Rather than praise, more important would be instructive feedback that directs the student toward success. The resulting satisfaction over the results would be intrinsic motivation.

Part 3 will examine service learning, resilience, goal setting, and aspirations

as they affect student motivation.

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