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Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves

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Illo of a fish leaping out of a school of fish into a bigger body of water

Editor's Note: This piece was adapted from Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond by Larry Ferlazzo, available March 21, 2015 from Routledge.

My previous post reviewed research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and described the four qualities that have been identified as critical to helping students motivate themselves: autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance.

In this post, I'll discuss practical classroom strategies to reinforce each of these four qualities.

Autonomy

Providing students with freedom of choice is one strategy for promoting learner autonomy. Educators commonly view this idea of choice through the lens of organizational and procedural choice. Organizational choice, for example, might mean students having a voice in seating assignments or members of their small learning groups. Procedural choice could include a choice from a list of homework assignments and what form a final project might take -- a book, poster, or skit.

Some researchers, however, believe that a third option, cognitive choice, is a more effective way to promote longer-lasting student autonomy. This kind of cognitive autonomy support, which is also related to the idea of ensuring relevance, could include:

  • Problem-based learning, where small groups need to determine their own solutions to teacher-suggested and/or student-solicited issues -- ways to organize school lunchtime more effectively, what it would take to have a human colony on Mars, strategies to get more healthy food choices available in the neighborhood, etc.
  • Students developing their own ideas for homework assignments related to what is being studied in class
  • Students publicly sharing their different thinking processes behind solving the same problem or a similar one
  • Teachers using thinking routines like one developed by Project Zero at Harvard and consisting of a simple formula: the teacher regularly asking, "What is going on here?" and, after a student response, continuing with, "What do you see that makes you say so?"

Competence

Feedback, done well, is ranked by education researcher John Hattie as number 10 out of 150 influences on student achievement.

As Carol Dweck has found, praising intelligence makes people less willing to risk "their newly-minted genius status," while praising effort encourages the idea that we primarily learn through our hard work: "Ben, it's impressive that you wrote two drafts of that essay instead of one, and had your friend review it, too. How do you feel it turned out, and what made you want to put the extra work into it?"

But how do you handle providing critical feedback to students when it's necessary? Since extensive research shows that a ratio of positive-to-negative feedback of between 3-1 and 5-1 is necessary for healthy learning to occur, teachers might consider a strategy called plussing that is used by Pixar animation studios with great success. The New York Times interviewed author Peter Sims about the concept:

The point, he said, is to "build and improve on ideas without using judgmental language." . . . An animator working on Toy Story 3 shares her rough sketches and ideas with the director. "Instead of criticizing the sketch or saying 'no,' the director will build on the starting point by saying something like, 'I like Woody's eyes, and what if his eyes rolled left?" Using words like "and" or "what if" rather than "but" is a way to offer suggestions and allow creative juices to flow without fear, Mr. Sims said.

"And" and "what if" could easily become often-used words in an educator's vocabulary!

Relatedness

A high-quality relationship with a teacher whom they respect is a key element of helping students develop intrinsic motivation. What are some actions that teachers can take to strengthen these relationships?

Here are four simple suggestions adapted from Robert Marzano's ideas:

1. Take a genuine interest in your students.

Learn their interests, hopes, and dreams. Ask them about what is happening in their lives. In other words, lead with your ears and not your mouth. Don't, however, just make it a one-way street -- share some of your own stories, too.

2. Act friendly in other ways.

Smile, joke, and sometimes make a light, supportive touch on a student's shoulder.

3. Be flexible, and keep our eyes on the learning goal prize.

One of my students had never written an essay in his school career. He was intent on maintaining that record during an assignment of writing a persuasive essay about what students thought was the worst natural disaster. Because I knew two of his passions were football and video games, I told him that as long as he used the writing techniques we'd studied, he could write an essay on why his favorite football team was better than its rival or on why he particularly liked one video game. He ended up writing an essay on both topics.

4. Don't give up on students.

Be positive (as much as humanly possible) and encourage a growth mindset.

Relevance

Have students write about how they see what they are learning as relevant to their lives. Researchers had students write one paragraph after a lesson sharing how they thought what they had learned would be useful to their lives. Writing 1-8 of these during a semester led to positive learning gains, especially for those students who had previously been "low performers."

It is not uncommon for teachers to explicitly make those kinds of real-life connections. However, research has also found that this kind of teacher-centered approach can actually be de-motivating to some students with low skills. A student who is having a very difficult time understanding math or does just not find it interesting, for example, can feel threatened by hearing regularly from a teacher how important math is to his or her future. Instead of becoming more engaged in class, he or she may experience more negative feelings. These same researchers write:

[A] more effective approach would be to encourage students to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of course material to their lives. This method gives students the opportunity to make connections to topics and areas of greatest interest to their lives.

What other strategies do you use in the classroom to reinforce any of these four critical elements of intrinsic motivation?

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

That's a great idea, Alexander. I agree that videos and other online resources make it so much easier for us to bring "real life" into our classrooms!

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
I am Bullyproof

This is a wonderful post! "And" and "what if" are great suggestions. "Act friendly" seems like a no brainer, but surprisingly enough, I have noticed very few teachers ever adding "sense of humor" to their lists of what-makes-a-great- teacher. Funny that :-) A light touch can work wonders. Hello, btw. I'm in Sonoma!

Subash's picture

Hi
This is a lovely post on how to be an ideal teacher to deal with various types of students. I too had many instances where I had students who would not hand in their homework. Once I started awarding them with few candies and chocolates, the ones who were not submitting too started to submit. But I have some students who are demotivated due to their diverse backgrounds and at times peer pressure or parents discouragement. Could you suggest some ways of handling this cases? I have tried counselling the students, speaking to the peers and the parents, but nothing has worked till now.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Could you say a little more about how their diverse background is impacting their motivation? Have you tried connecting with them using relevant work they'd be interested in? Social media, movies? popular culture perhaps? Some students need the work to be very relevant to their everyday life for them to see the connection and the benefit of engaging and learning.

Joe Harmon's picture

I am doing my doctoral dissertation using self-determination theory as a theoretical framework. Autonomy, competence, and relatedness are all vital for tipping the motivational scale towards more intrinsic forms. Another way to ensure autonomy is met is by using language that is supportive: "I invite you to...", "I encourage you to..." versus, "You should...." etc.

Michael Garner's picture

Great adage to use for student motivation.
Realizing what de-motivates
definitely leads to what can motivate a student.

Thank you for this article.

M Thorpe's picture
M Thorpe
A New Zealand teacher

I enjoyed this article, it encapsulates my thinking at the moment. I've jut had a discussion with a colleague around autonomy and that most teachers miss understanding what that looks like. The cognitive choice is the missing element that is often overlooked.

Thanks for this, I'll be referring to this again and again.

JMolaro's picture
JMolaro
I'm an elementary school teacher interested in inquiry-based learning and critical pedagogy.

Great article! I like that you've distinguished between organizational/ procedural choice and cognitive choice - the latter certainly gives the learner more autonomy and control over the entire learning process. I agree that modelling "thinking routines" is important and a powerful way to teach learners how one can become aware of their thinking in relation to a problem or situation. Metacognition is essential to the SRL process.
The idea that we need to praise effort, not intelligence is so very important to the SRL process. For one to be intrinsically motivated to learn, he must believe that his effort will directly affect the outcome. The ratio for positive feedback being between 3:1 and 5:1 has such an impact on our unmotivated, "difficult" students.
I'm going to try "plussing" that you've outlined - using words like "and" and "what if" to guide students in their learning. I like that it is supportive feedback, but does not take away their autonomy.
Thanks for the practical and inspiring article!
- Jocelyn

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Regarding motivation. I see so much of external praise and other admonitions. I feel this is nice but remains in the line with external teaching better techniques of learning. I feel there are more complex variables at work we can begin using as tools to help many students continually improve thinking, learning, motivation, and have better mental health from within. This involves learning to see our average stress as many maintained layers of unresolved mental work along with may perhaps, faulty and hurtful weights and values, which may act as magnets for other maintained layers of unresolved mental work over time. I feel all of us fall on a continuum of many essential and "non-essential layers of maintained mental work that take up real mental energy leaving less for newer mental work. This shows us just how our individual environments and not genetics and effort hurts thinking, learning, motivation/reflection/think time - mental reward received for mental work expended, and hurts our mental health. Remember, our present definition of average sees only some present situation, problem , situation, and even old mental and physical work. We need to change this definition to only unresolved mental conflicts and yes, also situations, "which go on top and even higher for including factoring for higher average stress brought into a situation.
We need to also remove the old teaching of succeeding by ability and "effort", which not only allows funneling of higher average stress into improper pace and intensity for newer mental work but also creates much higher and worse (work ethic) mental intensities when approaching newer mental work. We need to talk much more on the correct dynamics of approaching newer mental work more correctly or more slowly at first and allowing our mental frames to become more complex, thus allowing for greater pace, intensity and "intrinsic reward/motivation in those areas over the long-term. http://learningtheory.homestead.com

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