How to motivate your students


Despite writing rather a large number of posts on motivation, I sometimes get accused of ignoring motivation when I encourage the use of explicit instruction. It is suggested that explicit instruction may be effective for teaching kids things but perhaps other kinds of teaching are more motivating for students.

As teachers, we all have an implicit theory of motivation and so I thought I would try to codify mine a little. The most popular general theory of motivation is probably Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT). This posits the need for people to feel autonomy, competence and relatedness in order to feel intrinsically motivated. However, there are two problems with applying SDT to education.

Firstly, expert employees may well desire a lot of autonomy but students are novices who often don’t enjoy the activities from which they will learn the most. This then sets an instructional task that will build one of the pillars of SDT – competence – at odds with one that will allow autonomy. How do we resolve this?

Secondly, there appears to be some evidence that competence (or mastery) is the main driver of long term motivation.

My view is that ‘motivation’ is too large a term in a similar way that ‘feedback’ is too large a term. I think we need to chop it up a little and ‘interest theory’ helps here. This is the idea that there is situational interest that is derived from some feature of the present context, and personal interest which is roughly the same thing as intrinsic motivation – personal interest is when you have a self-generating interest in a topic.

The first thing we need to do is give away personal interest. We can create the conditions in which it might occur. We can make these conditions as favourable as possible. Yet we can’t, whatever we do, ensure that everyone will develop a personal interest in maths or literature or oxbow lakes. Personal interest is not within our control.

Instead, as teachers we are limited to manipulating two things: situational interest and behaviourist carrots, sticks and routines. Situational interest includes attempts to relate the content to students’ everyday lives and it can be risky. For instance, we might decide to engage students in Shakespeare by getting them to write a rap but this rap may end up having very little to do with Shakespeare. If so, we haven’t made any progress: We have created situational interest but not in the thing that we intended to teach.

Behaviourist measures are much maligned and Deci and Ryan (and their populariser, Alfie Kohn) would argue that they can never lead to intirinsic motivation. Yet if we believe that competency may lead to intrinsic motivation and that behaviourist measures can lead to competency then there is a clear pathway for this to happen.

I reckon this is our best bet. If we insist on teaching our subject well and try to make it interesting without sacrificing the content then, who knows, our students may grow to love it.


4 thoughts on “How to motivate your students

  1. Hi Greg,

    Looking at the chapter by Clark and Feldon in the Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (pp. 104-105), they write about the relationship between motivation and goal orientations: “Goal orientation refers to the source of an individual’s motivation for learning. Those who are classified as having mastery goal orientations pursue the acquisition of new knowledge for their own satisfaction and are not motivated by the comparison of their performance to that of others. In contrast, performance oriented learners invest effort in learning primarily for the purpose of attaining public or comparative recognition for their accomplishments (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). Because mastery-oriented students engage
    with the material for the purpose of understanding, they have been consistently found to be more likely to expend effort to learn the concepts presented and engage with the material more strategically and at a deeper level. However, their internal focus may sometimes prove maladaptive in the context of an evaluated course, because their focus may not have been on
    the learning objectives on which they would be assessed (Barron & Harackiewicz, 2001).
    Likewise, performance-oriented learners can manifest both adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. Successful behaviors are referred to as “approach” strategies, because they entail
    a proactive attempt to gain recognition for success by self-regulating and scaffolding learning opportunities to ensure success. In contrast, “avoidance” behaviors are those by which performance-oriented learners seek to dissociate their performance in the learning environment from negative evaluations of their abilities through self-handicapping behaviors that prevent their best efforts from being demonstrated (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002).”

  2. The most important part in Deci and Ryans theory is, in my view, the “split” between different kinds of extrinsical motivation, some of them which give “autonomy” that can be experienced an interesting meaning. If I can say “yes” to a teacher-initiated “project” or to a yet existing “social project”, I already am in the sphere of” autonomy”. This seems to fit quite well for the purpose of schooling and clearly contradicts the idea, pupils should choose all on their own (whatever this would mean…) and only follow their own, personal, individual interests already existing.

    The autonomy-side of learning, clearly favorable, can therefore be fostered via teacher-led activities.

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