Dec 20

The Secret to Building Intrinsic Motivation in Students: Mastery

December 20th, 2017 by Austin Butler

Learning a new language can be both frustrating and exciting.

One minute you think you’ve got things down, and the next you’ve forgotten how to introduce yourself.

So what helps people stick with the process? It’s the little signs of progress.

Like the first time you understand something you hear on the radio, or the first time you successfully order in a restaurant. These are all exciting milestones that keep you wanting more.

As it turns out, this sense of progress and mastery is incredibly important when it comes to intrinsic motivation.

Having already taken a look at relatedness and autonomy, this week we explore the final factor that contributes to boosting internal motivation for students: mastery.

By thoughtfully building these three elements into your classroom, you can begin to create a place where students are eager to learn and develop new skills.

Why Mastery?

It’s incredibly easy to lose motivation for doing something if you don’t feel like you’re making any progress.

Still can’t play even basic notes after a month of guitar lessons? Chances are you won’t stick with it for very long.

On the other hand, signs of progress can be highly motivating when trying to master a new skill or accomplish something challenging.

People who want to lose weight often attest that dropping a pound on the scale or noticing that their clothes fit a little looser is the most motivating factors to keep going.

These signs of progress are authentic feedback that what you’re doing is working and make you eager to continue.

So to get students motivated and wanting to learn more, it’s important to build in structures and systems that help them know they are making progress.

Ways to Build Mastery into Your Class

Track Progress

One of the best ways to help students see their progress on a given skill or subject is to have them track it.

Tracking could take a number of different forms depending on the age, subject, or skill. Maybe students graph their vocab quiz scores when you return them each week. Or students might add a sticker to a chart for each math skill they master. The more visual the better!

Give “Goldilocks” Tasks

There’s definitely a sweet spot when it comes to giving students appropriate work.

Too hard, and they’ll get frustrated, sensing that no amount of work will ever lead to mastery. Too easy and they’ll be bored, feeling that they’re already know all there is to know.

“Goldilocks” Tasks are those that are just right. Assessments and activities that are in a student’s zone of proximal development will push students to work hard and be able to see the fruits of their labors in real time.

Use Individualized Learning Platforms

The challenge with “Goldilocks” tasks is that within one classroom you are likely to have students who are at very different places in the learning process. Making sure that every lesson is within every student’s zone of proximal development is nearly impossible.

Luckily, individualized learning programs can help make this more feasible for teachers. Since kids can move at their own pace and see their progression through different levels, online learning platforms are a great way to help students feel a sense of mastery.

Make a Clear Criteria for Success

Sometimes students aren’t even clear on what they need to do to be successful. While some subjects such as math lend themselves to clear-cut answers and procedures, this isn’t always the case.

In reading classes, it is often necessary to make sure students have a clear way of knowing what mastery looks like.

You may include student or teacher exemplars or very explicit rubrics with your assignments to make sure students will be able to know when they’ve mastered a skill.

Create Reflection Time

Build in time for students to think about their learning. In order to develop intrinsic motivation, you need to make sure students are seeing the connection that hard work leads to mastery.

Have students complete a reflection after an assessment to think about what they did (or didn’t do) to prepare and how they think that affected their outcome.

This is also a great opportunity to set manageable goals for future assessments and action plans to work towards those goals.

By helping students feel a sense of mastery and progress in your classroom, you are fueling the intrinsic motivation fire.

Got other ideas for how to help students experience mastery in the classroom? Share your tips in the comments below!


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