Student Engagement

Creating the Conditions for Student Motivation

Some thoughts on what schools can do to instill a strong sense of motivation to learn in students.

March 19, 2015

“There are three things to remember about education. The first is motivation. The second one is motivation. The third one is motivation.” —Former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell

When students feel more motivated to learn, they perform better academically (PDF, 253KB), improve classroom behavior, and gain a higher sense of self-esteem. Unfortunately, data—and the direct experience of many educators—shows that lack of motivation affects many of our students, and appears to increase each year from middle school through high school. Students can demonstrate this lack of engagement by withholding effort and by “voting with their feet” through rising chronic absenteeism as they get older (PDF, 1.4MB), and chronic absenteeism is among the highest predictors of dropping out of school.

How can we respond effectively to this motivation crisis?

Conditions for Growth

One way to is to double-down on the common belief in the power of extrinsic motivation—bonuses, points, stars, etc.—and its equivalents in the punishment arena.

I’d offer a different perspective, one best characterized by Sir Ken Robinson, author and speaker on education issues, who has said, “Farmers and gardeners know you cannot make a plant grow... the plant grows itself. What you can do is provide the conditions for growth.”

One of the key ways to provide the conditions for growth or, as the National Research Council put it, “create a set of circumstances,” is by emphasizing intrinsic motivation (choosing to do an activity in order to gain pleasure from or in order to help achieve an internalized goal) instead of extrinsic motivation (doing a specific behavior in order to gain an outside reward).

Before reviewing what those conditions for growth might be, let’s quickly review some of the overwhelming research on reward undermining that demonstrates why a reliance on extrinsic motivation should not be on that list:

  • Extrinsic motivation can be effective over the short term in encouraging mechanical tasks and compliance, but tends to be destructive in advancing creative and higher-order thinking.
  • Extrinsic motivators, though possibly effective in the short term to gain compliance to do a task, tend to diminish intrinsic motivation for that same activity over the long term (PDF, 4.8MB).
  • A recent study of 200,000 employees found that that those who were more intrinsically motivated were three times more engaged in their work than those who focused more on external rewards.

These critiques, however, do not mean that extrinsic motivation has no role in the home, classroom, or workplace. Even Dr. Edward Deci, perhaps the world’s foremost researcher on intrinsic motivation, recognizes that there are going to be times when carrots or sticks may be needed to encourage or stop a behavior because of the immediacy of a challenging situation, but he also stressed that they are not enough. After coping with a challenging situation via a carrot or stick, for example, “You need to sit down the next afternoon when everyone’s calm, talk it through from both sides, then discuss ways so the behavior doesn’t happen again.... Always use the blow-up as a learning moment the next day.”

In addition, author Daniel Pink discusses the need for baseline rewards—the basic and fair compensation that we must all receive in order to have any motivation at all. In school, that might mean a caring teacher, a clean classroom, and engaging lessons.

In other words, extrinsic motivators have their place, but they must also be kept in their place.

So if extrinsic motivation is not one of those above-mentioned conditions for growth, what is on the list?

Intrinsic Motivation

Many, if not most, researchers suggest that four elements combine to nurture intrinsic motivation (PDF, 65KB):

1. Autonomy: having a degree of control over what needs to happen and how it can be done;

2. Competence: feeling that one has the ability to be successful in doing it;

3. Relatedness: doing the activity helps them feel more connected to others, and feel cared about by people whom they respect; and

4. Relevance: the work must be seen by students as interesting and valuable to them, and useful to their present lives and/or hopes and dreams for the future.

A challenge to us educators is to help our students motivate themselves through cultivating these four qualities and to counter what the National Research Council suggests—that these four elements become less and less visible as students move into secondary school.

Years ago, I lived in an elevated house at the bottom of a small hill. It had a storm drain on the street in front of it. During the summer, I would pour wood chips in the small dirt area between the sidewalk and the curb, and during heavy winter rainstorms, the drain would get clogged up with debris floating downhill. Water would go over the curb, and all the wood chips would float away, leaving a muddy area. Each year, my wife would strongly suggest I plant grass or bushes in that area so that it could withstand the water, and each year I instead chose the short-term solution of wood chips—it appeared easier to me and seemed to work most of the time, at least until the bad weather hit. I chose this solution even though planting grass and bushes would have saved me time and money over the long term, would have made the neighborhood look better, and, in fact, would have probably attacked the cause of the problem by reducing the amount of debris clogging the drain. I had other things on my to-do list that I felt were more important, and I was more comfortable with a familiar problem than with a solution that was new to me—having a green thumb was not on my resume.

We can’t rid ourselves of the wood chips of extrinsic motivation until we know how to create the conditions in which nice grass and bushes will grow. In my next post, I’ll share specific strategies on how we do just that in the classroom.

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