Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves
To inspire intrinsic motivation in students, schools should focus on nurturing their sense of autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance.
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.
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?”
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!
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 the ideas of Robert Marzano:
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 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 your 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 to write 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.
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 one to eight 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 demotivating 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 researchers write that 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.”
Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond by Larry Ferlazzo.