Where Does Student Motivation Fit in the Education Debate?

What’s the most effective way to motivate students? As any teacher will tell you – it’s complicated. Different strategies work with different students. Some educators spur motivation by offering money or other rewards, although this approach is undeniably controversial. Others depend on constant positive reinforcement, setting clear goals, integrating technology into the curriculum, or, most likely, a combination of many different strategies. Educators of course can’t do it alone – administrators and families play important roles. But for such a critical piece of the education equation, how we motivate our students is often overlooked in the national debate over education and completely ignored in the media.

Motivation is an amorphous concept so it’s understandably difficult to get a grip on it. The Center on Education Policy (CEP) just released a series of papers that dive into the issue, and, although no one should expect to find that one one-size-fits-all fix, CEP’s examination of various student motivation strategies can at least help schools, policymakers and communities approach the issue constructively.

The report, Student Motivation—An Overlooked Piece of School Reform, pulls together findings about student motivation from decades of major research conducted by scholars, organizations, and practitioners. The six accompanying background papers examine a range of themes and approaches, from the motivational power of video games and social media to, yes, the promise and pitfalls of paying students for good grades.

“Student motivation can be influenced in positive or negative ways by students’ experiences and by important people in their lives,” said Alexandra Usher, CEP senior research assistant and lead author of the summary report and background papers. “How teachers teach, how schools are organized, and other key elements of school reform can be designed in ways that may either encourage or discourage motivation.”

According to Usher, researchers generally agree that four major “dimensions” contribute to motivation. Generally students need to feel they have the ability to do good work, along with a degree of autonomy over how they accomplish it. Students must also have some interest in, or understand the value of, completing the assignment. Finally, students recognize that success brings social rewards, such as a sense of belonging in the classroom or approval from a peer.

At least one of these dimensions must be satisfied for students to feel motivated to learn.

So, what about those other, more materialistic rewards, such as money, pizza coupons, or even cell-phone minutes? According to the CEP report, some reward programs can have positive effects if they are carefully designed and implemented, within a firm set of guidelines. For example, rewarding students for a mastering a specific task is a better motivator than rewarding for performance – such as reaching a benchmark on a test, something students may not feel they have much control over.  In general, poorly designed reward programs are likely to decrease motivation.

Other key findings form the report:

  • Tests are more motivating when students have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge through low-stakes tests, performance tasks, or frequent assessments that gradually increase in difficulty before they take a high-stakes test.
  • Professional development can help teachers encourage student motivation by sharing ideas for increasing student autonomy, emphasizing mastery over performance, and creating classroom environments where students can take risks without fear of failure.
  • Parents can foster their children’s motivation by emphasizing effort over ability and praising children when they’ve mastered new skills or knowledge instead of praising their innate intelligence.

Read Student Motivation—An Overlooked Piece of School Reform