Motivating Students: What Works, What Doesn’t

Motivating Students: What Works, What Doesn’t

Keeping students motivated is an incredibly important part of being an effective teacher. Students’ potential to learn is almost endless as long as they can stay motivated to continue working hard—especially in the face of difficult problems.

Grades are the classic way to motivate students. Traditionally, good grades have been held out as a kind of carrot to motivate students toward certain types of behaviors. At the same time, bad grades are often wielded as a kind of stick to steer students away from undesirable behaviors. In this way, many teaching philosophies have relied on a kind of classic reward-punishment system of motivation.

The problem is that research shows that the system doesn’t work well for everyone. In fact, new information about how motivation works suggest that even students who do respond well to grades as motivation might respond even better to other kinds of motivation. Let’s take a closer look at what we now know.

The New Science of Motivation

Perhaps one of the most famous voices for contemporary research into motivation is Daniel Pink. He wrote the book Drive, which explores the topic in great detail. One of his most surprising findings is that the straightforward reward-punishment system of motivation is very limited in its effectiveness. In fact, it really only works for very simple, routine tasks.

If you want people to feel intrinsically motivated—that is, to feel excited about doing the task for the task’s sake—you need to look at motivation differently. Pink found that the best way to motivate people for more complex, creative tasks is to give them autonomy and space to experiment and explore. Human beings are naturally inquisitive creatures who want to spend their time in engaging ways. That’s why our world is filled with art, music, books, video games, and movies. That’s why we’ve traveled to the moon and explored the depths of the oceans. That’s why we’ve discovered obscure mathematical principles and uncovered how the human brain works. We are driven to learn—as long as we are given the room to do so.

What It Means for Teaching

What is it that we want from an educational experience? Students who are motivated to do simple, routine tasks or students who are motivated to explore, think critically, and create? Obviously, most educators would agree that the latter is more important. This means that understanding motivation research is incredibly important to teachers.

Teachers can apply these principles of autonomy and room to experiment in ways little and big. Sometimes it will mean completely recreating what goes on inside a classroom, and sometimes it will mean simply tweaking elements of a long-standing assignment in order to allow a little more room for students’ own intrinsic motivation.

Here are some of the ways that teachers can motivate students: 

  • Show the Big Picture– Sometimes students are going to have to do routine tasks like take multiple choice tests or complete fill-in-the-blank activities. These are important ways to show their understanding, and some form of standardized testing will likely impact their educational futures. Connecting these tasks to the big picture can help students feel more motivated to do well. Teachers can make sure to show students how the information on the tests is useful in a more comprehensive way.
  • Connect to Students’ Interests– Students are already motivated. Just listen to the things they talk about in their spare time. They are motivated to follow their favorite sports teams and watch their favorite TV shows. They are motivated to care deeply about their friends and participate in social media. Teachers can connect their lessons to students’ existing interests to help that motivation fuel their learning.
  • Provide Choices– Choice is really important to autonomy. While there are set objectives and standards that need to be met, there is no reason that teachers cannot build in flexibility that allows students to make choices about how they meet those students. Providing choices between writing prompts, test formats, and text selections is a great way to give students some control over their own learning. These can be presented individually or voted on by the class.
  • Project-Based Learning– Project-based learning (PBL) is a major buzzword in education today, and for good reason! Project-based learning gives students a problem to solve and lets them work out the path that they’ll take to get there. It provides real-world critical thinking skills, autonomy, and room to be creative.
  • Give Feedback for Effort– Praising the outcome forces students to focus solely on the outcome. Instead of only praising a high grade on a test, praise the studying that’s going on before the test. Praise the student that is frustrated but taking a long time to figure out a math problem. Praising effort helps to show students the path to success instead of just the success itself, and that ultimately makes them more motivated.

Motivating students to do well is an important part of any teacher’s job, and The Tenney School is determined to give every student the motivation they need to reach their goals.