Helping Students Motivate Themselves

I have a great interest in understanding student motivation for learning. What motivates students to learn? How can I help students motivate themselves? What are some implications for classroom instruction?

I came across this article – Strategies for helping students motivate themselves – and was struck how 3 out of the 4 qualities mentioned match Daniel Pink’s work on The Puzzle of Motivation (a TED Talk worth watching; or if you prefer, here is a link to an RSA Animate version on the same talk).

Essentially the insight that I had confirmed again is that tokens and rewards work well as motivators for simple tasks. However, they don’t work the way we think they should when it involves the conceptual and creative thinking that takes place in cognitively challenging tasks.

In their place, a teacher has a greater chance in motivating and engaging students in their learning by thinking about the “Motivation MAP” – an acronym I use to focus on the three essential qualities of motivation and engagement.

Motivation MAP = Mastery, Autonomy, Purposefulness

M = Mastery

Are students working to demonstrate their developing competency and mastery in learning? Are students reflecting on how to improve their learning? Does teacher feedback focus on student effort for their learning rather than an innate ability? (Check out this website to learn more growth mindsets; or if you prefer, here is a link to a video about fostering a growth mindset.) Encouraging student mastery in learning feeds their desire to get better in what they do and, as a result, is a powerful motivator.

A = Autonomy

What choices are offered to students that allow them to be active participants in their own learning? Does this extend beyond simply letting student choose who they will work with on a project or in what format they can complete an assignment, whether poster, essay or presentation? Are there opportunities for “cognitive choice” so that students can determine how they will learn something new? Are they asked to self-assess and reflect on their learning? Offering this type of choice in our lessons helps foster student autonomy and their desire to be more self-directed. This also leads to better engagement.

P = Purposefulness

Of what value are the learning activities in the classroom? Do the students sense that they are simply completing “busy work” or do they find the learning activities meaningful and relevant?  Is there purposefulness in what we do together? When students sense a value in their learning, they will be more motivated and engaged to proceed further, if not deeper, into their learning.

Thinking about the “Motivation MAP” is a simple reminder to helping students motivate themselves: mastery, autonomy, and purposefulness.

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