It’s rare to find a student who consistently exhibits strong motivation towards all academic subjects. Jennifer may race towards math, but run from her Spanish homework. James may dive headfirst into history, but approach his math homework only after he’s exhausted every other academic activity and spent hours deep in procrastination.
In other words, most students don’t like all subjects equally.
Not surprisingly, interest generally directs a student’s preferences. It’s no secret that most of us tend to like the things we are good at and dislike those that are more challenging for us.
What Makes a Student “Unmotivated”?
When a student seems unmotivated for an academic task, there is a reasonable likelihood that the student doubts his or her ability to successfully accomplish the task. Most of us avoid activities that may result in frustration or failure. After all, failure can be quite tough on the ego.
When students tell me “I hate math,” that’s frequently code for “I dislike how math makes me feel less capable than I’d like to be.” They don’t honestly hate math. They do hate looking bad. They hate feeling frustrated, incompetent or embarrassed by their performance.
If I can help a student feel more competent in math, amazingly, that dislike for math will frequently diminish (though it may not necessarily become preferred).
The Role of Mastery in Motivation
One of the most useful ways to help a student who does not seem motivated is to focus on mastery. Give the student a feeling of accomplishment. In my practice, I’ve been continually impressed by the power of successes – even small ones — to help students recalibrate their self-perceptions and overcome limiting self-beliefs. Success begets more success
Sometimes students refuse to engage with a particular academic subject. They’ve mentally checked out and refuse to put their egos on the line by risking failure or further embarrassment. In these cases, we need to step back and reframe the whole experience.
I teach my students to maintain a “growth mindset.” Leaning heavily upon Carol Dweck’s work on learning mindsets, I create a learning environment in which mistakes are viewed as the foundation of learning and growth, rather than a source of embarrassment. Mistakes become the fuel for the most rapid advancement a student can attain.
Four Words to Spur Motivation
Setting up appropriate challenges for students can also spur on motivation. Many young people love a challenge, a chance to test their mettle, an opportunity to overcome obstacles and come out ahead. When a student’s motivation for a particular task is low, there are four words that can act as a remedy: “Let’s play a game.” Many unmotivated students light up in the face of a challenge that they believe they can overcome. Boys especially love an element of competition in their pursuits.
To help transform an academic task into a game, you can agree upon new constraints in which to “play”: perhaps you can ratchet up the timing constraints, or add some limitation, or set a lofty goal. A game emerges. Honoring the sage counsel of renowned educational researcher, Mary Poppins, what was tedious can become more fun and more naturally motivating.
Using Rewards for Motivation
To help students feel competent and accurately track their progress and growth, it’s important to provide encouragement and positive feedback, or “informational rewards.” Be specific and accurate with your feedback, with emphasis on successes. Over time, encourage students to provide their own feedback, to reflect more upon and appraise their own learning and growth.
When it comes to using rewards other than informational rewards, be careful not to undermine intrinsic motivation. As a rule, use verbal/informational rewards liberally, but tangible rewards sparingly.
For example, it’s okay to reward a great performance after the fact — in a celebratory fashion — but it’s far from ideal to make rewards contingent upon specific performance. If you do set up a contingency (i.e. if you hit this academic goal, you get this reward), keep the reward as small as possible, while still being motivating. If a student has no intrinsic motivation for achievement, dangling a reward might shift a student’s behaviors, and in the process, the student might discover a degree of intrinsic motivation for the activity. Then, when the reward is extinguished, the student has a newfound respect for/enjoyment of the activity. But if the student starts with a level of intrinsic motivation (e.g. genuinely motivated by achievement), and the reward is introduced and then extinguished, that can permanently transform the student’s relationship to the activity.
Instilling a Love for Learning
Most researchers agree that it’s important to steer clear of threats or punishment as a way to motivate academic achievement. While threats and punishment may get results in the short them, they can negatively affect the students relationship to academics in the long term, undermining a student’s sense of autonomy vis a vis their academics.
Whenever possible, attempt to motivate students by helping them build feelings of competence and mastery. In the 21st century, students will need to be lifelong learners, so it is all the more important that we foster in them the love for learning from an early age.
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