Student Motivation Studies

Creating the Conditions for Student Motivation

“When it comes to education, there are three important points to keep in mind. The first issue is one of inspiration. The second one is having the necessary motivation. The third one is having the proper motivation. —Terrel Bell, a former Secretary of Education of the United States

When students have a stronger desire to learn, they have a tendency to increase their academic performance (PDF, 253KB), as well as their behaviour in the classroom and their feeling of self-esteem. The data, as well as the first-hand experiences of many teachers, suggest that a lack of motivation is a problem for a significant number of our children, and it appears to get worse with each passing year from middle school on up through high school. Students can show that they are not engaged by not making an effort and by “voting with their feet” by having higher rates of chronic absenteeism as they get older (PDF, 1.4MB). Chronic absenteeism is one of the strongest predictors of dropping out of school. Students can show that they are not engaged by not making an effort and by having higher rates of chronic absenteeism.

What are some effective ways that we might respond to this crisis of motivation?

Conditions for Growth

The widespread belief in the efficacy of extrinsic motivation (bonuses, points, stars, etc.) and its analogues in the field of punishment is one strategy for achieving this goal. Another strategy is to emphasise the importance of intrinsic motivation.

I’d want to provide a different viewpoint, one that is best summarised by the words of Sir Ken Robinson, an author and speaker on matters related to education. Robinson has stated that “Farmers and gardeners know that you cannot make a plant grow… the plant grows itself.” What you can do is create an environment that is conducive to growth.

The National Research Council describes providing the conditions for growth as “creating a set of circumstances,” and one of the most important ways to do this is by putting an emphasis on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is defined as the decision to engage in an activity because of the pleasure or the contribution it will make toward the accomplishment of an internalised goal (doing a specific behaviour in order to gain an outside reward).

A reliance on extrinsic motivation should not be included on that list; but, before we discuss what those prerequisites for growth might be, let’s briefly go through some of the overwhelming data on reward undercutting that illustrates why we shouldn’t include it:

The use of extrinsic incentive may be useful in the short term for encouraging conformity and mechanical tasks, but it has a negative tendency when it comes to the development of creative and higher-order thinking.
Even if they are successful in the short term in gaining compliance to perform a task, extrinsic motivators have a tendency to reduce the level of intrinsic drive for that activity over the course of a longer period of time (PDF, 4.8MB).
A recent study of 200,000 workers found that those who were more intrinsically motivated were three times more engaged in their work than those who focused more on external rewards. This difference in level of engagement can be attributed to the fact that intrinsic motivation comes from within an individual.
The criticisms presented here do not, however, imply that extrinsic incentive plays no part in the activities that take place in the home, the classroom, or the job. Even Dr. Edward Deci, perhaps the most well-known researcher on the topic of intrinsic motivation in the world, acknowledges that there are going to be times when carrots or sticks may be needed to encourage or stop a behaviour because of the immediacy of a challenging situation. However, he also emphasised that they are not enough, and he believes that intrinsic motivation is more important. After resolving a difficult circumstance, for instance, by the use of a carrot or a stick, “You need to sit down the following afternoon when everyone’s calm, speak it out from both sides, then suggest solutions so the behaviour doesn’t happen again…. Always look at the misstep as an opportunity for growth the following day.”

In addition, the author Daniel Pink highlights the requirement for baseline rewards, which are defined as the fundamental and equitable recompense that everyone of us is required to get in order to have any sort of drive at all. At school, this may mean having a teacher who cares, having a classroom that is tidy, and having lessons that are interesting.

In other words, there is a time and a place for extrinsic motivators, but there is also a time and a place to keep them in their place.

The question now is, what else is on that list if intrinsic motivation is not one of those requirements for growth that have been discussed above?

Intrinsic Motivation

According to the findings of many if not the majority of academics, the cultivation of intrinsic motivation requires the interaction of four factors (PDF, 65KB):

1. autonomy, which is defined as a certain level of control over what must occur and how it can be accomplished;

2. Competence: the perception that one possesses the skills necessary to complete the task successfully;

3. Relatedness: Participating in the activity makes them feel that they are more connected to other people and that the individuals whom they admire care about them; and

4. The work needs to be relevant to the students’ life, both in the here and now as well as in their aspirations and expectations for the future. Students need to find the work fascinating and worthwhile to them.

To counter what the National Research Council suggests—that these four elements become less and less visible as students move into secondary school—we educators face the challenge of helping our students become self-motivated through the cultivation of these four qualities. This presents us with a unique opportunity and a unique challenge.

When I was younger, I used to reside in a house that was perched on a ledge at the base of a gentle slope. It was located on a street that had a storm drain in front of it. The drain would get blocked up with material that was floating downhill during the big winter rainstorms because I would pour wood chips into the small soil space that is between the sidewalk and the curb in the summer. The water would flow over the curb, all of the wood chips would float away, and what was left would be a muddy area. Each year, my wife would strongly suggest that I plant grass or bushes in that area so that it could withstand the water. Each year, however, I would instead choose the short-term solution of wood chips because it appeared easier to me and seemed to work most of the time, at least up until the point where the bad weather arrived. Even though planting grass and bushes would have saved me time and money in the long term, would have made the neighbourhood look better, and, in fact, would have probably attacked the cause of the problem by reducing the amount of debris that was clogging the drain, I decided to go with this solution instead. I had other things on my to-do list that I felt were more important, and I was more comfortable with a problem that was familiar to me than with a solution that was new to me — having a green thumb was not on my resume. I was more comfortable with a familiar problem than with a solution that was new to me.

We won’t be able to clear away the debris of extrinsic motivation unless we have a better understanding of how to cultivate an environment in which lush grass and shrubs may thrive. In the following piece, I will discuss particular methods that we implement in the classroom in order to achieve the aforementioned goal.