Student Well-Being Commentary

Chat Wrap-Up: Student Motivation—What Works, What Doesn’t

September 12, 2006 5 min read

On Aug. 30, readers directed their questions on student motivation to a panel that included Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester; Carol S. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University; and Susan N. Graham, a teacher at Gayle Middle School, in Stafford County, Va. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Question: Are there group differences—by age, gender, and/or ethnicity—that explain the causal factors or suggest solutions to problems of student motivation?

Read a full transcript of this chat.

Deci: Generally, there are not. The basic principles of motivation are the same for all groups of students. Of course, there are superficial differences. For example, the content of texts that males vs. females, or African-Americans vs. Caucasians, find interesting will differ, and thus the motivation for doing a particular task might be different by groups. But the basic principle that all students, to be optimally motivated, will need to feel a sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to others in the learning setting does not differ by groups. Solutions will come from examining the degree to which the interpersonal climate in a learning setting allows students to satisfy these three basic psychological needs.

Question: Most of my students are easily engaged in learning and want to do their best. But a few have built such a wall around themselves that I can’t get them to trust me, let alone teach them anything. What are some ways to break down this barrier?

Graham: When I confront that wall of indifference I respect it, because it may be the only defense the reluctant learner has against failure. Benign neglect can sometimes provide enough privacy for such students to risk trying something new. But excessive praise for a tentative effort may drive them back to their safe haven of non-engagement. I think it raises the risk factor beyond their level of toleration.

Rubrics that require both self-assessments and teacher assessment can be effective motivators. When my students produce a product, they must evaluate their own work based on the quality of the product and the quality of the work process.

Quite by accident, I discovered that expectation of performance and actual performance are often completely disconnected. Low-achieving students predicted low grades even when they gave themselves middle to high scores on the rubric. Conversely, students who tended to perform well in academic classes but had poor motor skills often said that they deserved a high grade because “I always make A’s.”

When students can recognize their successes and identify their need for improvement, they are more likely to take ownership of their own learning.

Question: What is your opinion of intrinsic motivation as a personality trait? Is there a correlation between teacher self-efficacy and student motivation?

Dweck: My specialty in motivation is the study of students’ beliefs about their intelligence. My research shows that students who believe their intelligence is fixed (they have only so much and that’s that) tend to worry about how smart they really are. Their motivation and engagement are tentative—when a task gets too hard, they lose interest and flee. But students who believe their intelligence can be developed get deeply involved in learning and remain engaged in the face of difficulty. We have shown in many studies that their engagement and intrinsic motivation is hardier.

However, this does not mean that intrinsic motivation is simply a stable personality trait. When we have taught students the view that intellectual skills can be developed, their intrinsic motivation and their engagement in their schoolwork take a sharp turn for the better. In my writings, I talk about how teachers can encourage this view.

Question: What teaching strategies increase student motivation?

Graham: The most effective ones are those that put students in control. I am a firm believer in discovery or project-based learning, because with these students use multiple learning modalities that encourage the development of skills and the mastery of concepts at the same time. Students who see a connection between the concepts they are learning, the authentic assessment they are developing, and the real-life application beyond the classroom have answered the ultimate student-motivation question: “Why do we have to learn this?”

Question: Education research seems rarely to consider the personality of the teacher as a motivator in improving performance. Yet students often mention personal connections with teachers as prime motivators. Should we look harder at the role of teachers’ personalities, and how could we do that?

Dweck: One teacher factor that is really important is the teacher’s belief about students’ ability to learn and to expand their intellectual skills. When teachers convey that they are there to help all students develop their abilities, students will trust and form strong connections to them. (If teachers instead convey that they are there to see who’s smart and who’s not and to treat them accordingly, students are more likely to see teachers as people who are not on their side.)

Teachers who believe that all students are capable of intellectual growth, who are there as resources for students’ learning, and who set high, challenging standards for their students (which they help them achieve) will be teachers who are good motivators and memorable teachers.

Question: How successful are incentives, such as monetary rewards, in motivating students?

Dweck: Monetary rewards are not a good solution. They may get students to do things, but they will not make them enjoy learning or learn deeply. In fact, these rewards will do just the opposite.

Many students don’t work hard because they don’t think they’re smart and they don’t want to look dumb. The solution here is not to try to convince them they are smart. It’s instead to teach them a new way of seeing things. We have had great success motivating students by teaching them about the brain and then showing them how to apply the lessons to their schoolwork. We teach them that every time they apply themselves and learn new things, their brains form new connections and that they, over time, can become smarter. This is extremely motivating—they are in charge of their mind and its growth. Schoolwork becomes something that makes them smarter, not something that makes them feel dumb.

Question: Do you have a summary of the best student-motivation techniques for teachers to use?

Deci: Relate to students from their perspective. Provide activities and materials that are interesting and relevant to their lives and wrap these into the processes of learning basic skills and material. Provide students with as much choice as possible about what to do, within the structure that exists in that educational setting. Believe in students’ capacities and provide optimally challenging activities and instruction. Provide meaningful rationales for why you are making particular requests. Minimize the use of controlling language that is full of words such as “should,” “must,” “have to,” and so on. And, finally, listen to their interests and concerns.

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Student Motivation—What Works, What Doesn’t


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