Intriguing research shows that popular approaches to motivate students using rewards such as money, gold stars, or points (called “extrinsic motivators”) may in fact lead them to lose interest in learning (1). But when students have intrinsic motives for learning, or learning because they find the activity itself interesting and gratifying, they become more likely to attach meaning to their work, explore new topics, and persist in the face of learning challenges (2,3,4,5).
To learn how educators can help students develop intrinsic motivation, we spoke with Dr. Christina Hinton, faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Founder and Executive Director of Research Schools International (RSI), and Dr. Tom Callahan, Director of the Merck-Horton Center for Teaching and Learning, and educator at St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island. For several years, the pair has worked as part of a research partnership that supports St. George’s to implement research-informed practices. One theory that has greatly informed their work is self-determination theory, which identifies three components that can help students develop intrinsic motivation: autonomy in learning, relatedness, and competence (4,6).
These core principles, outlined below, provide a useful framework for teachers seeking to improve student motivation.
Autonomy in Learning
When students have a sense of autonomy or control over their own learning, their intrinsic motivation improves (6,7), they are likely to persist longer at tedious academic tasks, and they learn to process information at a deeper level (5,7,8). To support students’ autonomy, teachers can encourage them to set their own learning objectives, contribute to course material, and use learning techniques that work best for them.
Dr. Hinton shared that one key way to support autonomy is to give students choices. For example, instead of assigning students a specific book to read, teachers can allow students to select from a reading list. Similarly, rather than have all students write an essay, teachers can offer them the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding through digital or other mediums as well. To balance students’ desires for both autonomy and structure, Dr. Hinton suggested optional autonomy. “I’ve learned to provide my graduate students with structure for everything, but also give them the option to opt out of that structure and learn in alternative ways that work best for them, and whenever they would like,” she said.
Dr. Callahan promotes autonomy by structuring his high school psychology course around the interests of his students. He said, “I work with students to determine what we will do, how we will do it, and how it will be meaningful to them. Students have to ‘own’ the material so they want more.” Instead of focusing on traditional questions such as which textbooks to use or when to give exams, he suggests that teachers focus on the bigger questions, such as, “what is meaningful to students, and how can I help them find their own way through the learning process?”
The student-centered approaches of Dr. Callahan and Dr. Hinton are aligned with other research on student motivation, which shows that autonomy in learning can be particularly effective for adolescents who often resist adults’ attempts to influence their personal goals (9).
Relatedness refers to the desire to feel connected to and cared for by others (4). Research shows that social isolation and loneliness are linked to student anxiety, lower intellectual achievement, diminished self-control, and poorer health (10,11). However, studies show that when students feel a sense of social belonging at school, they develop more meaningful relationships with fellow students, higher self-esteem, better academic performance, and improved well-being (11,12). Relatedness can be especially beneficial for racial minority students who can feel isolated at school. For example, after African American students were told that many individuals experience social adversities, and that this is not unique to their ethnicity, students reported fitting in more at school and had better psychological health (12).
Dr. Hinton recommends the use of guided partner or group projects to help students feel connected to one another. Another strategy Dr. Callahan uses to boost relatedness is to reduce the physical separation between the teacher and students in the classroom. He removed his teacher’s desk, and structures his classroom in a U-shape so he can move around the circle regularly. “Students respond to that level of relatedness, because they’re not interested in being managed or told what to do. I share knowledge with them and draw knowledge from them,” Callahan said. This strategy also helps students feel connected to each other by providing them with a safe environment to ask questions, discuss ideas, and take risks.
Students need to be challenged by schoolwork and know that expectations are high, but they also need competence, or a feeling that they are equipped to meet these challenges and standards. Studies show that once students perceive themselves as competent in learning class material, they develop more intrinsic learning motives (4). But, if students feel that the material falls outside their abilities, they can feel helpless and abandon tasks (13).
Teachers can cultivate competency by introducing activities that are optimally challenging, and by providing feedback. Specifically, it can be helpful to provide non-critical feedback with information on how to master the task (14).
For example, Dr. Callahan asks students to identify challenging vocabulary words that they encountered in their coursework. Next, he presents effective strategies for using flashcards to learn vocabulary. Students then practice in the classroom and at home, and are tested on the strategy, rather than whether they were able to memorize a long list of words. “My goal is to give them the tools to be competent — not just tell them ‘nice job!’… I want to show them how to learn so that they can demonstrate competence,” Dr. Callahan said. When students feel equipped to take on challenges, they will take greater control over their learning, and remain motivated in the face of obstacles.
Student Motivation: Essential for Learning
Research shows that students don’t necessarily need rewards or lessons in motivation to remain motivated, but rather a learning environment that supports their emotional needs.
At some point, all students will face setbacks when pursuing goals, and as adults, will be confronted with complex challenges. When teachers allow students greater autonomy in their learning and support their needs for competence and relatedness, they help them learn how to face life’s challenges with self-driven motivation.
Read more about Student Motivation on the Digital Promise Research Map
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