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Student Motivation

Explore common reasons for lack of or for increasing student motivation

student motivation

Which students are most likely to drop out of high school? Those failing? Those struggling with a particular subject area? Those who lack the proper preparation from grade school?

Surprisingly, none of the above, according to a study funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and conducted by a firm that spearheads policies designed to strengthen communities. In its study “The Silent Epidemic,” Civic Enterprises found that most students who drop out of high school are not “bad” or failing students. In fact, many who drop out have average or better grades.

Lack of motivation was the number one reason for dropping out of school, states Civic Enterprises. The organization interviewed high school dropouts aged 16 to 26 from 25 different U.S. cities, and found that 6 out of 10 students had C averages or better. Furthermore, 7 out of 10 believed they would have graduated if they had tried hard enough.

Motivating students is a challenge all members of the education community face. According to education professionals and experts on the subject, motivation is defined by a student's desire to participate in the learning process, supported by personal and external factors.

Two types of motivation

Student motivation primarily is separated into two categories: extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators. These motivators are driven by friends, parents, teachers, and personal convictions. They influence students to earn good grades, complete assignments, and participate in class discussions.

Extrinsic motivation

Many students hate what they consider busywork, or assignments they perceive as pointless. But what if, at the end of an assignment, an amazing prize was offered for students who finished the assignment correctly? Wouldn't that spur students to submit assignments quickly and accurately?

Extrinsic motivation includes outside motivational forces that push students to work hard. This means accomplishing tasks because there are rewards associated with it. For students, extrinsic motivators come in the form of grades, parental, teacher, and social expectations.

But receiving a reward doesn't guarantee motivation among students, according to “Student Engagement and Achievement in American Secondary Schools,” published by the Teachers College Press. In the book, author Fred M. Newman notes that in order for extrinsic motivators to be effective, the student must desire the rewards, and understand that academic achievement is the only way of obtaining those rewards.

Despite the appeal of outside rewards, however, extrinsic motivators are not as effective as motivators that result from self-determination. According to the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, extrinsic rewards or punishments actually distract the student from the learning process, and do not work in the long-term. And, students learning material for a reward typically do not continue to learn the material once the teacher removes the reward.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within, and is the most effective form of motivation for learners. Regardless of extrinsic rewards, a student's personal interest in the material is what drives them to be good students.

Students motivated intrinsically allow curiosity to guide them, enjoy the challenge of learning, and push themselves to master a topic. But often, students must be led by teachers to realize their potential for intrinsic motivators to be effective.

Teachers are instrumental in reinforcing intrinsic motivators for students by showing that hard work and determination has a big pay off past high school. If students find subjects they enjoy and apply themselves for the sake of learning, they are likely to approach future careers with the same attitude, finding the right career for their interests and passions.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, by celebrating student success daily, using humor to make class topics interesting, applying learning to future career aspects, and offering chances for student choices, teachers make classes more interactive and fun for students. By showing students that a subject is enjoyable and not boring, they are likely to keep the students' attention (see Attention) and immerse them in the subject.

For example, a teacher who lectures from a PowerPoint slide about African culture would be far less effective than a teacher who organized a “culture day,” where students try African food and games to learn about different countries.

Why are students unmotivated?

The reasons why students are disengaged from school are nuanced and varied. Outside factors such as relationship issues, problems within families, and social life concerns shift the focus from schoolwork and education, distracting students from the education process. But perhaps one of the main reasons students are unmotivated is boredom.

The High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) is a comprehensive survey by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy administered to high school students across the country. It measures engagement in the classroom, and identifies why or why not students find school stimulating.

HSSSE Project Director Ethan Yazzie-Mintz states in the survey’s results that 66% of students surveyed in 2009 indicated being bored in class at least every day. In fact, only 2% of students reported never being bored. Boredom in class stemmed from students not finding the materials interesting or relevant, finding work unchallenging, and listening to uninteresting lectures.

The survey allowed student responses and inputs, with many criticizing subject matter and teaching methods employed by educators. One student wrote, “It would be nice to understand things or learn important stuff for life after high school.” Another expressed frustration at the teaching process, saying, “I don't find the work interesting, don't enjoy being talked at, and hate that everyone teaches to standardized tests.” The survey responses show, as a whole, most students do not feel their opinions and views are respected or acknowledged, leading to widespread apathy about learning.

Engaging students

Students who don't feel respected or acknowledged are likely to feel distanced from the education community, caring less about performing well in school. Establishing a relationship between the student and teacher is integral to the educational experience, and can make the difference between a student who is intrinsically motivated, and one who is extrinsically motivated.

The book, Tools for Teaching by Barbara G. Davis indicates several ways teachers are able to establish a relationship with their students:

  • Giving frequent, personal feedback indicates the teacher is listening to students, and is willing to engage them. A student reinforced by positive feedback is more willing to continue to participate in class.
  • Assigning work that is neither too challenging, nor too easy, will ensure opportunities for success, while also providing students a sense of accomplishment for finishing work.
  • Helping students find meaning in the work will increase their intrinsic interests. For example, instead of simply memorizing a math equation and being tested on it, students could be presented with a real life situation, like designing a bridge by using learned equations.

Recognizing students’ interests and goals and applying them to lesson plans shows students that the teacher values them as members of the school community. The HSSSE study indicated students who felt that they had choice and control over learning participated more in the education process. Offering students a choice between multiple assignments gives them a sense of control, and a more engaged experience of learning. Choice allows students to pick subjects that pertains to their specific interests, and pushes them to become intrinsically motivated.

If you’re interested in counseling teenagers or becoming a school counseling, contact schools offering degree programs in psychology or counseling.

Extrinsic rewards gone too far? Cash for Grades Programs

What if at the end of a school semester, you received a paycheck with your report card? That's the basic premise for “cash for grades” programs, controversial incentives for students to earn better grades.

Several cash for grades programs have been implemented in the U.S., where their effectiveness has been noted in poor, inner-city districts. In the Time magazine article, “Should Students Be Paid for Good Grades?,” author Lisa Fitzpatrick reports that cash for grades programs have positive, but short-term effects on student grades.

The article examined the program in two Louisiana community colleges, and found students offered cash incentives were more likely to enroll in more classes and maintain at least a C average. The students reported feeling more confident about themselves, and found cash incentives to be great given the economic situation in America.

But some experts believe offering this type of extrinsic reward to students undermines intrinsic motivation, and once funding runs dry, students won't continue to work hard. For example, through students may do well in class to receive a reward, they may not push themselves as hard to study for the SAT because no reward is associated with it.

In “Financial Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from Randomized Trials,” conducted by Harvard University's EdLab, researcher Roland G. Fryer analyzed “cash for grades” trials in 250 urban schools, and found the programs to lack intrinsic value. He writes: “Paying high school freshmen for their grades in core courses leads to modest increases on their overall grades, attendance, and the number of courses they pass, but has no effect on standardized test scores.”

Others say the initiative is extremely effective with students who might not understand the value of education, spurring them to arrive to class on time, complete assignments, and participate in class.

Published in the Washington Post, the article “Cash Incentives Create Competition,” details the effectiveness of such programs in Washington D.C. In it, author Theresa Vargas details how students earn money by completing homework, earning good grades, and wearing uniforms. While long-term effects of the program have yet to be seen, Vargas describes students who are excited to receive checks, comparing them with friends, and taking pride in the amount of money earned.

Offering extrinsic rewards appear to have negative effects on long-term motivation, but sometimes seem necessary to establish an intrinsic value system. Students who receive money for good grades are likely to continue to produce quality work, but teachers must also link good grades to future success in careers and beyond.

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