Any teacher at the elementary, secondary or even post-secondary level, as well as many parents, would undoubtedly agree that motivation is one of the thorniest issues in both education and child-rearing. Like so many aspects of learning and teaching, it’s complicated.
Motivation arises out of the totality of our individual experiences including our emotions, belief systems, values, historical occurrences and cognition. These experiences help form our ability to set and achieve personal goals.
Motivation rises to the surface as a concern pretty much only when one experiences its absence. Rare is the complaint about a student who devours the subject matter, asks for extra work or applies learning in creative ways. Often when a student is perceived to lack motivation, the response can be character judgment: she’s lazy, he just does not do the work, she does not want to learn, he is not focused, she does not apply herself, he does not pay attention, her work is sloppy or incomplete.
While any or all of those factors could be true, placing a label on them does not solve the problem. If we define “motivation” as a desire to achieve, in this instance, an academic goal, it is worth the effort to investigate what obstacles could be preventing a student from feeling motivated to achieve and attempt to address them.
Researchers classify motivations as intrinsic (a desire to learn because there is something to be gained for the individual from the learning) or extrinsic (a desire to learn as a means of achieving another end). There appears to be agreement that internal motivations tend to lead to more successful outcomes.
Although motivation, like learning, is personal and varies by the individual, some of the key factors in motivation include:
On the most basic level, we learn what we want to learn. If we have not been exposed to the new material, though, how would we know to want to learn it? Every one of us (I hope) has had the experience of interacting with an inspiring teacher. Inspired teachers connect with students on a personal level and communicate their own love of their subject matter. They show its interrelatedness to other areas of learning.
Even the simple act of meeting one on one with an advisor can be the catalyst to encourage a student to open up to and generate a relationship to the work. The establishment of a caring relationship, which can be accomplished in person, online, in any form of communication can be the foundation of the creation of a relevant experience.
Some students are motivated to learn if they have a way to adapt assignments to particular areas of interest or particular modes of communication. Can they develop a PowerPoint, design and implement a project? Others work better within a more scaffolded approach. Figuring out the optimal level of control for each student may result in increased motivation to succeed at the task.
Perceived or Actual Level of Competence
Some students arrive at courses underprepared. Some arrive with an incorrect estimation of their level of competence. In both cases, competence and confidence are among the most important factors in motivation.
Other blog posts have discussed the importance of mindset in learning. If you believe you can do something, you improve your chances of doing it. The converse is also true and in both instances, physiological changes take place in the brain to foster one result or the other. The belief that I cannot do something also affects my motivation to learn it. Why should I try if I cannot possibly succeed?
Fear of or experience of failure
For the confident person, failure can be a road to success. A confident person sees failure as a way to learn from mistakes and move on. A person who has experienced failure, perhaps multiple times and in various sectors of his life, becomes less and less willing to try. In these instances failure, both the fear of it and the experience of it, are massive roadblocks on the path to learning. Emotions, anxiety and experience all conspire to close the door on success- and everyone likes to succeed.
In both of these instances that process can start with a simple connection or positive rapport with the instructor. If someone else, especially someone whom I respect, communicates that they believe I can learn, then perhaps I can. Those connections are a first step. They must also be accompanied by the work of assisting the student to develop those skills that will enable her to experience success. As we have all experienced, it does no good to tell someone that they can learn. We must create the environment that will allow and foster that learning.
Motivation is kind of a two-way street. When we, as teachers encounter a lack of motivation in our students, we all need to challenge ourselves to be motivated to ask, “why?” and to persist in unlocking the answers.
Ryan, Richard M. and Deci, Edward L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.