The Motivation Puzzle: Four Ways to Help Students Succeed

September 08, 2016

Only half of students in Grades 5 – 12 are engaged in school, according to a 2015 Gallup Student Poll of nearly 1 million students. As students advance through middle school and high school, their engagement in coursework — and their hope in the future — drops significantly, bottoming out in 11th grade.

Gallup Engagement by Grade
Students are less engaged with each grade level, bottoming out in 11th grade.
Source: Gallup Student Poll 2015


A report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) at George Washington University suggests that while existing education reform efforts to increase student achievement on exams are important, they have not focused enough on what it takes to motivate students to build a strong foundation of skills and knowledge. Students who put little effort into schoolwork are unlikely to benefit from higher standards and a more rigorous curriculum.

The CEP report concludes: “Higher motivation to learn has been linked not only to better academic performance, but to greater conceptual understanding, satisfaction with school, self-esteem, and social adjustment, and to lower dropout rates. Not only is student motivation the final piece of the school improvement puzzle — without it, the rest of the puzzle falls apart.”


Intrinsic Motivation and External Motivation: Which Works Better?

Motivating students to learn is a perennial challenge for teachers. While external rewards may work well for young children, as they grow older, reliance on rewards, praise, and even grades has been shown to have a negative effect on advancing creative and higher-order thinking. For tasks that require more complex problem solving, “rewards actually narrow our focus and restrict possibility” according to motivational expert Dan Pink in his popular Ted Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation. The rewards of intrinsic motivation, according to Pink, are self-direction or autonomy, mastery, and purpose.


Solving the Student Motivation Puzzle with Personalized Learning

Educators face the challenge of incorporating curriculum that builds and sustains student motivation in order to avoid the disengagement that the Gallup Poll shows increases as students move into middle school and high school. As we move toward deeper integration of technology in the classroom, keep in mind these four elements based on self-determination theory that create intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy: Students need to have a degree of control over what needs to happen and how it can be done.
  • Competence: Positive feedback increases students’ intrinsic motivation and the feeling that they have the ability to be successful.
  • Relatedness: Relevant activities make students feel more connected to others, and feel cared about by people they respect.
  • Relevance: Students must see work as interesting or valuable to them, and useful to their present lives and/or hopes and dreams for the future.


Autonomy: Supporting Self-Directed Learning

Students value having a measure of control over their own education so they can choose the path toward success that best suits their needs. Educators commonly use two types of autonomy support: organizational autonomy, such as letting students choose their seating assignments, and procedural autonomy, such as choosing a homework assignment or a final project deliverable. Researchers posit that a third type, cognitive autonomy, more effectively develops critical thinking. Examples of cognitive choice include students discussing different approaches to solving a problem, debating ideas freely, and evaluating their own progress.

With the right scaffolding in place, students can become independent problem solvers, and take more ownership in determining the path of learning that works best for them.


Competence: Providing Meaningful Feedback

When students believe in their ability to be successful, they have more motivation to become invested in their learning and take ownership of how they learn. Formative assessment tools create a meaningful feedback loop. Self-direction and evaluation promote the metacognition skills that are critical for becoming confident, independent problem solvers in and out of the classroom.

 Ideally, digital curriculum incorporates easily accessible adaptive scaffolding tools that help to engage students with rigorous content, including:

  • Text-to-speech voiceovers. This is particularly helpful for ELL students and struggling readers.
  • Vocabulary rollovers. Students can roll the cursor over a word they need defined without losing their place in the text.
  • Links. Students can click on a hypertext link for additional information and to build connections between ideas.
  • Connections between pages. Students can easily jump back to previously presented information for review and clarification, and then click back to the present lesson.
  • Graphic organizers. Visual representations of content help to organize information in a different format, which can be helpful for struggling readers. Students can complete graphic organizers as a way of organizing information, taking notes, and synthesizing information from multiple sources.
  • Presentation of information through multiple modes. These modes may include text, video, interactive activities that let students learn through discovery, confirmation, and practice.


Relatedness: Building Positive Student–Teacher Relationships

According to Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher, blogger, and author on education, building a positive student–teacher relationship is an integral part of establishing intrinsic motivation. The following are some effective methods of building a positive student–teacher relationship:

  • Take a genuine interest in your students. Provide opportunities for students to share their interests, hopes, and concerns with the entire class.

  • Share some of your own stories. As teachers share more of themselves, students become more interested in sharing in return — both personally and academically.

  • Create a friendly, engaging environment but also establish clear expectations for classroom behavior. Robert J. Marzano and Jana S. Marzano explain, in The Key to Classroom Management, that there are two ways to set expectations for classroom behavior: establishing clear rules and procedures, and providing consequences for both negative and positive behavior.

  • Develop rapport with students’ families with a positive call or email home to connect positive student progress with their family relationships.


Relevance: Engaging Students in Learning

“What does this have to do with real life?” It’s no surprise that relevance and intrinsic motivation are interconnected — and a key to engaging students in coursework. Using real-world examples that students can relate to helps establish relevance, as well as draw students in and engage them with the content. Students are willing to work hard when they can connect learning activities to topics they care about, such as community, friends, family, school activities, movies, music, or social issues they’re invested in.


Motivate All Students to Succeed

When these four elements come together they become a powerful motivator for students to not only pass courses, graduate, and go to college, but also to develop deep conceptual understanding of the topics that interest them. A personalized learning environment provides the individualized path and support each student needs to build self-confidence and develop the motivation to succeed.

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