Sep 12

What Makes a Student WANT to Learn?

September 12th, 2017 by Austin Butler

“The first team to finish will get extra recess time on Friday.”

“Any student who gets less than a 70% on tomorrow’s quiz will have to attend tutoring after school.”

There are a number of ways teachers motivate students to do what we want them to do. From grades, to rewards, and even punishments, we use these tools to motivate students to try their best.

But is this carrot and stick way of teaching (offering rewards and punishments to achieve a desired behavior), preventing students from wanting to learn for the sake of learning?

Would students still want to continue their education when these extrinsic motivators are removed?

In order for students to get the most out of their education and to become curious lifelong learners, it’s important to build their intrinsic motivation.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is driven by a fascination with a subject, a sense of accomplishment in mastering a skill, and a feeling that academic content is relevant to one’s own life.

Students who are intrinsically motivated will complete an assignment or practice a skill because they see value in it, not because there’s a punishment or reward tied to their behavior.

How can you spot intrinsically motivated students? Students who say, “Science interests me” or “Learning history helps me understand today’s world,” are intrinsically motivated.

It’s entirely possible for students to be intrinsically motivated in some subjects or projects, and not on others. As teachers, we want to build intrinsic motivation even for content or assignments that students may not know much about or think they don’t like.

So how can you harness the power of intrinsic motivation in your classroom?

Read on for ten ways to help engage your less interested kids and extrinsically motivated students do their best even with no reward or punishment attached.

Tips for Building Intrinsic Motivation

1. Goal sheets

At the beginning of class, have students fill out a simple sheet telling what they are committed to learning that day in class (this will often be a predetermined standard or skill) and then at the end of class have them write a few sentences of reflection on how they did. This routine can help students make the simple connection that it feels good to succeed at what they do.

2. Class rules

Let your students generate and decide on class rules. By having a chance to voice their ideas about how a high-functioning and respectful class should operate, they’re much more likely to buy into these rules and abide by them.

3. Give feedback

Feedback is an incredibly important aspect of building intrinsic motivation. If students get clear feedback on strengths and areas for improvement in their work, they’re more likely to want to improve.

4. Autonomy

The more autonomy students have, the more they feel that they are in charge of their own learning. This is a powerful feeling for students, and one that will keep them wanting more. Let students make choices about how the demonstrate mastery, turn in work, and decide when they’re ready for something more challenging.

5. Self-competition

Encourage students to compete against themselves for sake of improvement (no prizes attached). Can they beat their typing speed from last week? Or read a book at a higher Lexile level than the last one they finished? When students can see their own improvement over time, motivation will soar.

6. Relevance

Students want to learn about what matters to them. Make learning relevant to students and their lives and they’ll be much more likely to jump in with enthusiasm and stick with work when it gets hard.

7. Embrace Visualization

Ask your students to visualize a moment when they felt successful and proud of something they accomplished. Then, set them loose on a task at hand. By priming students to remember how great success feels, they’re more likely to want to work for that sensation again.

8. Criteria for Success

Help your students learn to gauge when they’ve mastered a concept. Have a clear criteria for success for every skill, almost like an “I’ve got this” check list. If students know exactly what success looks like, they’ll be much more likely to reach for it.

9. Rethink Rewards

Including rewards and class incentive systems in teaching can make school fun for kids. At the same time, though, you don’t want students only to raise their hand because they want to get a prize ticket or a gold star. Try to wean students off of reward driven behavior using the other ideas on this list.

10. Model Intrinsic Behavior

Show your students what intrinsic behavior looks like. Talk to them about a training you’re attending because you want to learn more about tech in the classroom, or how you read the news every morning because you enjoy being a more informed citizen. Your students want to emulate your actions more than you realize.

By building a classroom culture that values intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, you can help prepare students to embrace curiosity and seek opportunities for mastery, qualities that will serve them well for the rest of their lives (long after extra recess time is still a motivator).


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