Motivation Matters

The question of how we can motivate students to learn and stay in school is as old as formal education itself. Motivation isn’t just a necessary skill for education, it’s also a character trait that leads to success in later life–professionally in our careers, personally in our relationships with those around us, and generally speaking, in the goals we set and activities we enjoy.

Why Motivation Matters

Classroom teachers and researchers alike seem to agree on the importance of motivation for learning insofar as it sparks a desire to learn and sustains commitment to the task at hand. Given that the ability to self-direct learning is one of the most important determinants of a student’s experience and success in the online environment, student motivation is undoubtedly an important instructional consideration in the design and delivery of online courses.

Teaching Motivation: The Growth Mindset

Motivation contributes more to academic success than IQ test results.  For years, motivation was thought of as something that students either had or didn’t have: an innate quality that couldn’t be learned.  It was regarded as a fixed trait like intelligence, the talent to play the piano, or the ability to catch a football. This fixed mindset is so fundamental to our education system that it has resulted in pedagogical practices that document intelligence rather than cultivating it. For example, accountability regimes emphasize standardized test scores and final exams as gold-standard measures of student learning without considering a student’s progress or potential. As a result, many of our students believe that their innate talents or abilities determine whether or not they will be successful in school.

Recent research suggests that this isn’t the case at all.  Carol Dweck, an educational psychologist at Stanford University, paints a different picture of student success, one colored by motivation and commitment. Instead of endorsing earlier assumptions about innate talent or intelligence as determinants of student success, Dweck argues that our most basic abilities as humans are developed through sustained time and effort. As teachers, we must remind students that their brains, just like any other muscle in the body, get stronger (and perform better) with use. Re-orienting our teaching to emphasize the importance of character-building with the focus on self-efficacy, initiative, goal-setting, and time management, will help students master concepts from long division to formal essay writing. The growth mindset fosters motivation for learning by countering dominant stereotypes or long-held perceptions of inadequacy or inability. The theory that it takes 10 000 hours of practice to become an expert, as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, has been used to explain what makes a violin prodigy or a chess master. At the center of this theory is commitment to craft and motivation to practice. For students to be motivated to learn, they must believe in their own ability to be successful.

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Learning as a Journey

The arduous task of writing a 500 page doctoral dissertation has taught me the importance of motivation. It’s not about making each sentence appear in perfect prose on the screen the first time I write it.  As Ben pointed out in his post, Rethinking Failure, our fear of failure or of making a mistake can be paralyzing, preventing progress of any sort. As I am constantly reminded by my supervisor, “Don’t get it right; get it written!” “Getting it right” will happen once I’ve been able to articulate my ideas, reflect, and re-work them.

Students are best motivated when learning is undertaken as a process rather than by placing the emphasis on a final product. The process is at the core of all learning and is as crucial as the result when students finally ‘get there.’ In competency-based education systems, learning is a journey, not a final destination dictated or constrained by school bells and classroom walls. Learning happens in places and at times that are convenient for and chosen by the student. In terms of curricula, personalized learning pathways are forged by individual students and based on their learning progression, interests, and goals. Frequent, ongoing assessments provide students with timely, differentiated feedback making possible individualized supports and interventions to prevent frustration. Providing students with opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in a classroom or online allows them to reflect on where they started, how far they’ve come, and how they can best achieve their future goals. Students are most likely to develop the motivation to succeed when they play active, ongoing roles in their education. By creating courses that allow for differentiated learning, a flexible approach to time management, and an ongoing interaction with teachers, motivation becomes an inherent part of the process.

4 thoughts on “Motivation Matters”

  1. Hi Allison:

    Hard to argue with a PhD student steeped in their research. But while I agree with much of what you say, there is, I dare to say, something a bit PollyAnnish about the notion that Motivation can trump innate abilities (properly developed) in most, if not all fields of study and work. In my experiemce you can’t divorce the two. People motivated to achieve greatly usually have great native ability to begin with. Of course,that does not mean that pushing students to be motivated is not a worthwhile undertaking. It ‘s just that it should not be thought to be a substitute for ability. That’s a prescription for yet another of the regular “research-based ” failures that have plagued education in my lifetime.

    Ed Sommerville

  2. Thanks for your insights, Ed. It’s hard to argue with a veteran teacher like yourself and I think you raise an important point that motivation and innate abilities can’t be separated. For many years innate talents and intelligence were seen as the sole determinants of academic success, often resulting in stereotypes of particular groups of students that heavily influenced pedagogical practices, often to the detriment of students. Surely genetics plays a role in all aspects of our everyday lives and perhaps ignoring that reality is equally as dangerous. That’s why I’m advocating for a shift in our understanding of the factors that lead to student success as opposed to a full pendulum swing that is all too common in educational theory and practice.

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