Helping Students Motivate Themselves
The Dangers of Incentives and Rewards
Rewards can deliver a short-term boost—just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off—and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.
If someone’s baseline rewards aren’t adequate or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance. You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You’ll get very little motivation at all. But once we’re past that threshold, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.
Applying What We Know About Motivation in the Classroom
If we only praise students in general—"You’re very smart"—many will then try to avoid taking risks and stretching themselves. They will focus more on maintaining their image and believe that they will embarrass themselves by making mistakes. Praising effort— "You worked really hard today"—or praising specific actions—"Your topic sentence communicates the main idea"—can make students feel that they are more in control of their success, and that their doing well is less dependent on their "natural intelligence."
Teachers build relationships with their students by showing that they care about them, and by learning about their lives, dreams, and challenges. This is a key element of helping students motivate themselves. Numerous studies have shown that caring relationships with teachers can help build resiliency (the capacity to persevere and overcome challenges) among children. By learning about student interests, teachers can also help connect what is being taught in the classroom to students’ lives and discover their short-and-long-term goals.
Teaching engaging lessons is a "baseline reward" expectation of students. Boring lessons will not assist students to develop their intrinsic motivation to learn. That does not mean, however, that teachers have to put on costumes and become entertainers. It can, however, suggest that teachers consider keeping lecturing to a minimum and, instead, use many of the teaching strategies that have been found to be more effective for student learning. Many of these methods include some sort of cooperative learning. These can be as basic as "think-pair-share" to as ambitious as problem-based learning or project-based learning.
Multiple studies have shown a wide income disparity based on educational attainment. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, adults with advanced degrees earn four times the salary of those with less than a high school degree. There are similar differences between the likely length someone will be unemployed, one’s overall health, and even how long people will live. Research demonstrates that just showing students this kind of information can result in students being more motivated to learn.
People are more motivated and confident when they feel they have more control over their environment. Inviting students to have a voice in classroom decisions—where they sit, what day a test takes place, in what order units are studied, or even where a plant should be placed in the classroom—can help them develop that greater sense of control.