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Helping Students Motivate Themselves

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 06, 2011 6 min read
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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?”

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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.

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