Student Motivation

I hate exercise. I do it but I hate it. It find it boring and so I try to find things to distract me. For instance, I might watch a TV show whilst riding on my exercise bike. However, the exercise itself takes up a lot of my attention and so this doesn’t really work. Sometimes, I take a break from it. Over time, I have found that I can cycle faster and at greater resistance. So I do experience the feeling of improvement. In contrast, I have friends and acquaintances who started to exercise seriously in their thirties, began to improve and then felt motivated by this. They now cycle up mountains and talk at length at social gatherings about kilometres and minutes. That’s not me. I know that exercise is good for me and so I do it, but I can’t imagine enjoying the process.

As something of an evangelist for explicit instruction, I usually point to research on its effectiveness. Often people reject this research or tell me how complicated social science is, that we can’t know anything and so we should use their preferred teaching methods. At this point, I am sometimes referred to the rather eccentric world of critical realism. The argument seems to be that I am a “positivist”.

However, the dismissal of explicit instruction also comes in an entirely different form. Sometimes, teachers and academics will accept that explicit instruction is effective but they will state that they are more interested in motivation. Other approaches to education are more motivating, is the claim. As I’ve mentioned before, the proponents of inquiry learning in this news report basically use motivation as their entire argument.

I was involved in a small way this week with a Twitter exchange between Dan Meyer and Robert Craigen. Craigen is promoting a report which recommends explicit maths instruction. Meyer has taken exception to this and has, among other things, wielded the motivation argument. He notes that, “62% of the Algebra teachers surveyed in the NMAP said the biggest problem they face is ‘motivating students’.”

I have no doubt that this is a concern, particularly in America where ‘high-stakes’ tests are high-stakes for the teachers but not generally for the students. But I don’t think that Meyer sees the problem this way. Instead, the implication is that we can teach in a way that students will find more motivating and that explicit instruction is not the way to do this.

Firstly, I think that the premise is flawed. Imagine the ‘real-world’ projects from David Perkins’ new book in which students plan for their town’s future water needs or model its traffic flow. These are meant to be ‘relevant’ and therefore motivating. Really? Many students would find them utterly dull. And what of explicit instruction about how to build an atomic bomb? A lot of students find that pretty interesting – I know this because I’ve taught it myself. Even in this zeitgeisty example where students mess about with robots (and supposedly learn physics, which I doubt), you can imagine that unless this is an elective, some students will be hanging around the edge and talking about what they’re going to do at recess, completely unmotivated by the robots. In fact, the group-work structure makes it easier for these guys to coast.

However, let us assume that the tasks are motivating. Imagine that you said to me that I could get off the exercise bike and go for a walk around the local shopping mall instead. I would certainly enjoy this experience a lot more and you could claim that I was still exercising. This is the character of many ‘motivating’ maths games – there’s still maths in there, somewhere. But I wouldn’t take you up on this offer because I know that the exercise bike is better for me. I’ll stick at that.

You see, the purpose of learning something like maths is similar to the purpose of riding the exercise bike – it’s good for us. As you learn maths, you will improve at it and you might find this motivating just like those folks who are motivated by doing their exercises. You might develop a lifelong passion. In fact, I would hope that all students are exposed to at least one subject at school that they can feel passionate about.

But you might not develop a passion for maths. If not, what are you left with? Well, we know that an academic education correlates to higher pay and we know that this is particularly the case for subjects like maths. So there are financial reasons. It also contributes to your world-knowledge. Studying quadratic equations means that you know what David Perkins is writing about when he argues that students shouldn’t have to study quadratic equations. Without that knowledge, you simply could not access the debate.

But there’s something else. The discipline to work hard at something that you don’t find immediately rewarding in order to achieve a greater goal is a discipline much valued; not just by employers but by your adult self who is trying to make a good life. It is why I can keep getting on that exercise bike and it’s what stops us from being selfish narcissists whose need for constant entertainment prevents us from ever doing anything of consequence.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not the fun police. If you can make the learning more interesting without diluting it then go for it. It is even appropriate to take a break from time-to-time just to have some fun with your students. Not a problem. Just remember what you’re here for; to teach a subject.

You are not a clown.


19 thoughts on “Student Motivation

  1. “I have no doubt that this is a concern, particularly in America where ‘high-stakes’ tests are high-stakes for the teachers but not generally for the students. But I don’t think that Meyer sees the problem this way. Instead, the implication is that we can teach in a way that students will find more motivating and that explicit instruction is not the way to do this.”

    Agreed, but he’s more explicit than that, and appears to believe that discovery learning approaches (as defined in Anna S’s CD Howe report — which follows KSC on this) is intrinsically motivating. He treats that as a tautology. It’s not. In fact, I think it’s false.

    Whether one agrees with that contention or not, it’s clear that his argument is isomorphic to that famous syllogism from “Yes, Minister”:

    “Something must be done! This is something! Therefore this must be done!”

  2. Success and seeing oneself improve on a concrete measure of skill, knowledge or fluency is intrinsically motivating. I think it’s the highest motivation in education. The feedback cycle is essential for this motivation to work, and feedback must be concrete and tied to one’s actual performance. This is the thing that keeps people playing video games — the “purpose” is missing, but there is a feedback cycle that permits users to know, gauge their performance, and experience success concretely, and the accompanying endorphins.

    And … this kind of motivator is is far more strongly tied to direct instruction than indirect (especially the brand of indirect that is also anti-testing).

    • Hi Greg and Robert, I’m liking this arguments and understand where you are coming from although personally I don’t see things exactly the way you do on this topic. I’m with you on the importance of developing discipline to follow through on tasks, and on the feeling/evidence of improvement in anything being a motivator in itself BUT this is only of benefit to a person who does not believe that they can follow thorough or improve on something hard and ‘good for them’. One reason I’m such a fan of Michael Thomas’ work in languages is because he chose to teach languages not because he cares especially about people knowing languages, but because it’s something that many consider hard/difficult so when he went to a US school to teach ‘unteachable’ kids and felt their push-back he said “I’m here to show you that you can learn. That you an learn anything” and THAT was his message. We only need to do a Michael Thomas course once to believe that about ourselves. Once a student knows they are capable of following though on any task that another person will give them (and I got there early) it’s mind-numbing to continue with a full timetable of tasks and follow through. The work I did in year 11 I could have done in year 9… to me, and many other students, these were the same tasks but different content. “Same sh*t different day” is a heart breaking phrase I learnt when I got a my first job. Life (and the implicit message of schooling) has got to be about more than proving our discipline on things we don’t intrinsically care about over and over again?

      • Stan says:

        Have you read or heard anything by John Mighton of Jumpmath. He has exactly the same message. The name JumpMath comes from junior undiscovered mathematical prodigies with he message that anyone can not only do but be good at math and enjoy it.

        To continue the exercise metaphor repeating an easy exercise – lets say an easy job once around a track with a rest between repeats will lose any motivating sense of achievement. At some point a new level needs to be tried to regain the motivation this source of motivation. In a lifetime this can be difficult with exercise and is not for everyone.

        Happily throughout the school years there are accessible new levels of achievement for math. John Mighton would be one of the first to say move at the pace that maintains your motivation as illustrated by his early introduction of fractions.

    • “This is the thing that keeps people playing video games — the “purpose” is missing, but there is a feedback cycle that permits users to know, gauge their performance, and experience success concretely, and the accompanying endorphins.”

      Exactly. There are folks out there literally trying to turn math and other subjects into games because they do not understand how gaming draws us in: instant feedback, failure without (much) consequence, unlimited retries, a steady flow of endorphin-triggering small successes, and evidence of progress even as we fail. (eg., In a driving game, seeing in my rear-view mirror the ghost car reflecting my prior personal best.)

      It is not the story, the graphics, or the music — consider Super Mario on a three-inch handheld, it’s the endorphin drip from every small success.

      And failure is no problem. Indeed, a game that is too easy to beat gets put aside quickly and trashed in reviews. Sadly, this is not a problem we have with today’s math students.

      I am working this gamification angle here, shamelessly borrowing from the gaming world to wrap classic, undiluted Algebra in an engaging growth framework:

  3. Two thoughts occur to me. One is that people who don’t enjoy math much or perhaps enjoy other things seem to want to replace mathematical thinking with these other things. As an example finding another mathematical way of solving a problem can be an interesting challenge. Another proof of Pythagoras or a quicker way to multiply two numbers could be interesting problems. But when the amount of thinking to find another way of arriving at an answer is low it can become an exercise in handwriting. Perhaps some people enjoy writing things out neatly more than doing math. The worry is that these people are getting away with telling people that handwriting exercise is a productive math exercise. Meyer strikes me as someone who likes explaining things more than he likes problem solving. Perhaps that is why his emphasis is on that rather than math.

    The other thought comes as I am finally reading Thinking Fast and Slow. The thesis of that book that our type 2 thinking facility is both lazy and the only one that could consciously do math problems seems relevant. Good mathematical problems may be an ideal way to get people to harness and develop discipline with type 2 thinking. But is an approach that dilutes this helping, by letting students pace themselves, or hurting because some might never have to do the type 2 thinking. I am thinking particularly of group work here.

    • “Meyer strikes me as someone who likes explaining things more than he likes problem solving. ”

      I get the same impression from Dan’s writings, and from other math teachers who have come out against teaching math at all ( And that is a problem. If the teacher does not enjoy X, they will project this in ways large and small to their students.

      Me, I clearly recall learning math in middle school and feeling as if I were solving puzzles, and enjoying solving those puzzles as much as any puzzle. Of course one key here is that I *was* able to solve them. Real-world applications or relevance to my everyday life were — irrelevant! Math itself was fun.

      Math also had the advantage over pure puzzles like word scrambles or Sudoku of being a serious art underlying commerce, science, sports and pretty much everything. So we are in great shape, if only we could help students solve its puzzles.

      And this is why we have all these math education blogs and research studies and reforms and debates: kids cannot do pure maths very well. We should just work on that, not run away from the problem and work on making maths relevant or fun without tending to its actual instruction (wherein potentially lies all the intrinsic enjoyment we could hope for).

  4. Time to find an exercise that you are passionate about? I don’t exercise but I love running and cycling as mental time off and time to process things. Fitness is a pleasant side effect.

    Actually the idea of ‘exercise’ purposely being active for health benefits or because it is good for you is part of the reason many people struggle with it and the same reason why people struggle with maths. I agree that students need to find passion for subjects while at school. I think there needs to be an intersection between motivating and rewarding work and learning basic skills. What is the higher reward or benefit that will motivate students? Mastery goals?

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  10. The problem with argument from analogy is before we can learn from the analogue we must be certain it maps usefully onto the object of investigation.

    Is a maths worksheet well-understood by comparison with a treadmill? In a mastery setting, I am doing that worksheet because I do not yet know how to. I have been through “I hear” and “I see” so I have a shot at “I do”, but that is where I stand: just beginning to apply a new skill to a variety of problems which will get increasingly difficult as the salient features get presented in trickier and trickier form.

    That’s no treadmill workout. I have been on treadmills and I am with you on the miserableness of that. I do *not* have your self-control, however, so you will not find me or many others on one. And here the analogy may work: if we cannot make learning math itself intrinsically enjoyable and hope instead self-control or the thought of rewards years away will get kids cooking in math, we are doomed.

  11. Pingback: dy/dan » Blog Archive » Study: Implicit Instruction Rated More Interesting Than Explicit Instruction

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