Opinion
Teaching Profession Teacher Leaders Network

Helping Students Motivate Themselves

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 06, 2011 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This piece was adapted from Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges by Larry Ferlazzo, available April 22 from Eye on Education.

A teacher thinks: I work so hard at trying to get these kids motivated. Some are, but so many aren’t. They just seem to want to get by—if that. I try to encourage them—I’m their biggest cheerleader! But it can get so tiring. I feel like I’m pushing a rope with some of my students. Why can’t they just want to achieve instead of having to be pushed into it?

How many of us educators have said, felt, or thought something similar?

Strategies that teachers will often use in these efforts to motivate students include offering incentives and rewards—"If you read a certain number of books you’ll get a prize!"—or cheerleading relentlessly—"Good job, Karen!” It’s also not unusual for teachers to just “give up” on some students—"They just don’t want to learn!”

One of the lessons community organizers learn is that you might be able to threaten, cajole, badger, or bribe someone to do something over the short-term, but getting someone to do something beyond a very, very short timeframe is a radically different story. Organizers believe that you cannot really motivate anybody else. However, you can help people discover what they can use to motivate themselves.

This is very similar to what Edward Deci, one of the premier researchers and authorities on intrinsic motivation, wrote: “The proper question is not, ‘how can people motivate others?’ but rather, “how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?”

Upcoming Chat

Join Ferlazzo and moderator Mary Ann Zehr for an Education Week chat about student motivation on April 12 at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

When we are trying to motivate students—often unsuccessfully—the energy is coming from us. When we help students discover their own motivation, and challenge them to act on it, more of the energy is coming from them.

In fact, this perspective is in keeping with the original roots of the word “motivation.” It comes from “motive” which, in the 15th century, meant “that which inwardly moves a person to behave a certain way.”

Community organizers call it the difference between irritation—pushing people to do something you want them to do— and agitation—challenging them to act on something they have identified as important in their lives.

The Dangers of Incentives and Rewards

Many studies have shown that—contrary to what many of us believe—providing rewards to induce desired behaviors can result in long-term damage to intrinsic motivation. As Daniel Pink summarizes in his book, Drive:

Rewards can deliver a short-term boost—just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off—and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.

Researchers believe this loss of intrinsic motivation happens because contingent rewards—if you do this, then you’ll get that—force people to give up some of their autonomy. Deci, Pink, and William Glasser all highlight this need for learner autonomy as crucial for students and for all of us. As economist Russ Roberts commented in an interview with Pink, “Nobody wants to feel like a rat in a maze.”

Rewards (and punishments) have been found to be effective, however, in getting people to do mechanical and routine work that can be accomplished simply. For example, they can result in employees working faster on an assembly line or, in the classroom, getting students to make basic changes in their behavior. However, as Pink and others have shown, rewards can be destructive in advancing anything that requires higher-order thinking.

Of course, we all expect and need what Pink calls “baseline rewards.” These are the basics of adequate “compensation.” At school, these might include students expecting fair grading, a caring teacher who works to provide fairly engaging lessons, or a clean classroom. Pink writes:

If someone’s baseline rewards aren’t adequate or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance. You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You’ll get very little motivation at all. But once we’re past that threshold, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.

None of these points mean that students cannot be recognized and celebrated for their successes. The key is not holding it out as a “carrot,” but instead, providing it as an unexpected “bonus.”

The word “incentives” comes from incendere, which means “to kindle.” The dictionary says that “to kindle” means “to start a fire burning.” The idea is not to tell students that they will die from the cold or from being eaten by wolves if they do not start a fire right now and right here and in this way. Nor is the idea to say that, if they do what we tell them, they will get an extra bag of marshmallows to toast. Instead, the goal can be to find out where they want to set their fire and why, and perhaps help them learn how to use matches or a flint, and give them advice on the best place to find some dry wood.

Applying What We Know About Motivation in the Classroom

What can this look like in the classroom? In my book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers To Classroom Problems, I share many short, research-based, engaging, and academically rigorous lessons that can easily be integrated into a literacy curriculum to help get at these sources of intrinsic motivation. These include lessons on the effect of learning on the brain, self-control, the importance of sleep, and the roles of perseverance and personal responsibility in future success.

I also share suggestions for reinforcing student self-motivation on a regular basis. These include:

Praise Effort and Specific Actions
If we only praise students in general—"You’re very smart"—many will then try to avoid taking risks and stretching themselves. They will focus more on maintaining their image and believe that they will embarrass themselves by making mistakes. Praising effort— “You worked really hard today"—or praising specific actions—"Your topic sentence communicates the main idea"—can make students feel that they are more in control of their success, and that their doing well is less dependent on their “natural intelligence.”

Build Relationships
Teachers build relationships with their students by showing that they care about them, and by learning about their lives, dreams, and challenges. This is a key element of helping students motivate themselves. Numerous studies have shown that caring relationships with teachers can help build resiliency (the capacity to persevere and overcome challenges) among children. By learning about student interests, teachers can also help connect what is being taught in the classroom to students’ lives and discover their short-and-long-term goals.

Use Cooperative Learning
Teaching engaging lessons is a “baseline reward” expectation of students. Boring lessons will not assist students to develop their intrinsic motivation to learn. That does not mean, however, that teachers have to put on costumes and become entertainers. It can, however, suggest that teachers consider keeping lecturing to a minimum and, instead, use many of the teaching strategies that have been found to be more effective for student learning. Many of these methods include some sort of cooperative learning. These can be as basic as “think-pair-share” to as ambitious as problem-based learning or project-based learning.

Show Students the Economic and Health Advantages of Doing Well in School
Multiple studies have shown a wide income disparity based on educational attainment. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, adults with advanced degrees earn four times the salary of those with less than a high school degree. There are similar differences between the likely length someone will be unemployed, one’s overall health, and even how long people will live. Research demonstrates that just showing students this kind of information can result in students being more motivated to learn.

Creating Opportunities for Students to Help Make Decisions
People are more motivated and confident when they feel they have more control over their environment. Inviting students to have a voice in classroom decisions—where they sit, what day a test takes place, in what order units are studied, or even where a plant should be placed in the classroom—can help them develop that greater sense of control.

Years ago, a volunteer leader in one of our community groups was comparing two organizers with whom she had worked. She learned a lot of information from Ralph, she said. “But Johnny taught me how to think.”

Perhaps if we’re able to keep some of these concepts in mind, our students will describe us more like Johnny than like Ralph. And perhaps they’ll say we also helped them light their own fires.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession We Feel Your Grief: Remembering the 1,000 Plus Educators Who've Died of COVID-19
The heartbreaking tally of lives lost to the coronavirus continues to rise and take a steep toll on school communities.
3 min read
090321 1000 Educators Lost BS
Education Week
Teaching Profession Letter to the Editor Educators Have a Responsibility to Support the Common Good
A science teacher responds to another science teacher's hesitation to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
1 min read
Teaching Profession With Vaccine Mandates on the Rise, Some Teachers May Face Discipline
With a vaccine now fully FDA-approved, more states and districts will likely require school staff get vaccinated. The logistics are tricky.
9 min read
Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state in Hayward, Calif., on Feb. 19, 2021. California will become the first state in the nation to require all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The statewide vaccine mandate for K-12 educators comes as schools return from summer break amid growing concerns of the highly contagious delta variant.
Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic in Hayward, Calif. California is among those states requiring all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
Terry Chea/AP
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words Why This Science Teacher Doesn't Want the COVID Vaccine
Contrary to public health guidance, Davis Eidahl, an Iowa high school teacher, has no plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
4 min read
Davis Eidahl, a science teacher at Pekin High School in Packwood, Iowa, says he doesn't want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He thinks social distancing and occasional masking will be sufficient to keep himself and others safe.
Davis Eidahl, a science teacher at Pekin High School in Packwood, Iowa, says he doesn't want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He thinks social distancing and occasional masking will be sufficient to keep himself and others safe.
Rachel Mummey for Education Week