Who needs to motivate students? The answer is teachers, parents, and students themselves. And in this age of alternative educational delivery due to the pandemic, keeping students motivated is a bit more complicated.
There are two types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivators are those that someone outside offers a student to encourage them to work hard and to achieve. These may include special rewards that a teacher or parent may give. Intrinsic motivation is that type that a student has within himself to work and to achieve. In general, the older the student, the more intrinsic motivation sets in. But, even then, the motivators can be “outside” rewards, such as a good grade or a better GPA.
If we want to look at effective ways to improve student motivation, we have to consider whether these motivators are provided from without or within. So, let’s unpack some that may cross over between both of these – nine of them, to be exact.
Relationships Are Critical
All of us, no matter what our age, are more motivated to work and achieve for those people we truly like. Building those relationships takes time, and it involves some work.
For teachers, this means getting to know each student as an individual – their likes and dislikes, their personal lives, and what is going on in them, and showing a genuine interest. This is important all the way through high school, believe it or not.
For parents, it is more than just loving their children. It involves lots of listening and honoring all of their problems, issues, complaints, etc., no matter how trivial they may seem to you. If this relationship-building begins early on, teen years will be easier, because that teen knows that you will not “blow-off” his issues.
Students like to feel that they have some control over their learning. This can be accomplished by providing options for learning activities and for assessments of mastery of content and skills. If, for example, a U.S. history teacher has a unit on the Civil War, what learning activities will that teacher plan? Some students prefer to have read assignments, complete assignment questions, and take a test. But these activities only honor one type of learner. A group of students might want to create a civil War game or a play. Instructors can provide several options and/or allow students to come up with their own ideas for approval. Providing options gives students a sense of empowerment.
Make Learning Relevant
It’s difficult for students to see the importance of learning percentages, algebra, and geometry in a vacuum. They must see that there are real-world applications of these concepts and algorithmic skills. The same is true for history, writing, any of the sciences, etc. If a teacher cannot show how a concept or skill is useful in real life, students have little motivation to learn it, much less retain it. They may learn it for a test but will forget soon after. Retention of what they learn is what we all want. All learning must point to real-world applications.
Enthusiasm is Contagious
It is often said that teaching is part art, part science, and part acting. The “acting” part means that drama is involved. When teachers are excited and enthusiastic about what they are teaching, those emotions are contagious. Students will become excited and enthusiastic when those teacher emotions are followed by learning activities that are exciting too.
Providing Challenging but Achievable Goals
When students perceive that they cannot meet the expectations for learning that have been presented to them, they will often just “shut down” and not even try. Here is a simple example: Johnny is not good at spelling. Every week, he receives an “F” grade on his spelling test. He stops trying because the results are always the same. The inspiring teacher will stop putting those red marks and that “F” grade at the top of his paper. Instead, that teacher will put the number he got correct at the top of the paper, get with Johnny and say, “So, you got 5 of these right. Now we know you can spell. Let’s figure out how you can spell more. How about we try for 6 words next week?” Now that teacher has given Johnny a goal he believes he can meet.
Encourage Students to Seek Help
The instructor is not the only source of academic help. There are peers, there are parents, and, yes, the web. Showing students where to go for the help they need allows them to become more independent but also can be a motivator, if they know that seeking outside help is OK and not “cheating.” Consider, for example, the Ph.D. student in the process of producing his dissertation. He may need to seek advice and consultation from professional dissertation writers when producing a difficult part, perhaps the statistical analysis. This is not considered cheating, and getting that help will motivate him to move forward.
Give Rapid and Frequent Feedback
Most of us have had instructors who take forever to return assignments with grades and comments. It is frustrating. On the other hand, if feedback is provided very quickly after each assignment, students are able to see what they did right and what could be improved. This is far more motivating than not getting that feedback while new assignments continue to come. It’s hard for students to keep up enthusiasm for assignments when they don’t see results.
Give Specific and Meaningful Praise
Telling a student that he is “smart” or did a “good job” are meaningless praise words unless an instructor can be specific about what the student did that was smart or a good job. Instead of these types of phrases, instructors should state such things as: “What a smart idea you had to solve that problem,” or “you did a great job participating in the discussion.” These are statements that motivate students to do more of the same.
Create an Emotionally Safe Environment
Students may not understand something being taught; they need to be able to ask questions without fear of criticism or ridicule from others. And they need to feel they can answer questions or make contributions without those same fears. An instructor’s behavior sets this tone. If a student provides an incorrect answer, for example, an instructor can say something to the effect, “Well, I can see how you may have gotten that answer; let’s look at it a bit more closely,” or “I’m glad you asked that question. A lot of my students have had the same one.”
None of these nine strategies is difficult to implement in the classroom. It is a matter of planning engaging learning activities, giving students power over their learning, developing a personal relationship with each student, giving meaningful praise, and creating a safe learning environment. Students will respond accordingly.