Teaching self-motivation to students

iStock_000021886001XSmall (1)Recent cognitive and educational research sheds new light on the subject of motivation and suggests ways teachers can encourage self-motivation in students.

Douglas J. Lynch, of Wichita State University, developed guidelines based on current research which he believes can help foster self-motivation in students. Lynch prefaces his guidelines, however, with a general warning against stigmatizing students by viewing motivation as a fixed trait and against the use of ‘extrinsic’ or external rewards.

No child, writes Lynch, is entirely unmotivated. Students unmotivated by school work are often highly motivated by activities outside school. Lynch suggests that, for the most part, it is the way in which classwork is presented by the teacher and viewed by the student that determines the level of motivation.

External rewards can interfere with internal motivation

With respect to external rewards, he points out (and research confirms) that external rewards can interfere with internal motivation. External reward systems undermine the development of internal motivation by supplanting the goal of knowledge or skill acquisition with an extrinsic reward.

According to Lynch, internal motivation can be taught. To establish just what he means by internal motivation, Lynch quotes Jere Brophy (Director of the Institute for Research on Teaching at Michigan State University): “…motivation to learn refers to an enduring disposition to value learning for its own sake – to enjoy the process and take pride in the outcomes of experiences involving knowledge acquisition or skill development.”

To paraphrase, students need to believe that school work is worthwhile. Lynch suggests that although students may not think classwork is fun, they can learn to believe it is important and that they will benefit from it if they work.

Lynch makes the following suggestions to teachers who want to increase their students’ self-motivation:

1. Provide success and closure on tasks. Select work appropriate to the student’s current level of proficiency. Tasks should challenge the student, but be of moderate difficulty so that he/she is able to succeed with reasonable effort. Tasks should be interrelated. It should be apparent to the student that each successive task builds on a previous task. Early work should be saved and returned to students at a time when they are able to see and understand the progress they have made.

2. Use positive introductions for tasks. Introductions should point out the value and usefulness of the assignment. When a task is relatively uninteresting, students can be motivated if they understand the relation and importance of the task to tasks they will be assigned in the near future. Students can also be encouraged to work at tasks they find difficult if they are made to feel challenged but not intimidated. Students learn that the satisfaction that comes with having accomplished a difficult task is a compelling reward in itself.

3. Provide constructive feedback by making comments which explain to the students what they need to do in order to achieve success. Frequently, it is necessary to discuss a problem or concept with a student to discover the reason for a mistake. By revealing the cause of the error, a teacher helps the student avoid similar errors in the future. On many tasks, students should have opportunities to correct mistakes before a grade is given. In this way, they can feel successful as well as learn that it is their progress, their learning that teachers value and, indeed, which they should value. In large classes, teachers may be too busy to provide regular feedback to each student. In those cases, pairing students or using small cooperative groups can provide an opportunity for students to discuss and solve problems among themselves.

4. Allow choice with responsibility. Choice gives students control over their learning. Holding students accountable for their choices helps them develop a feeling of competency which is so important for self-motivation. Choices can vary. The type of assignment, its subject matter, or the order in which it is completed are examples of the ways in which teachers can offer choices.

Lynch believes that teachers who use these techniques enable students to take control of their learning and become self-motivated.

“Teaching Students to Be Internally Motivated” Reading Improvement Summer 1990 pp. 155-157.

Published in ERN November/December 1990 Volume 3 Number 5

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