How can schools better motivate students?

"Improving student motivation cannot be accomplished by schools alone," says the report.

It might seem like common sense: To achieve better results, students have to be motivated. But what can schools do about this? A new report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) aims to answer this question—and it argues that school reform efforts won’t succeed unless they address student motivation.

“Motivation is a central part of a student’s educational experience from preschool onward, but it has received scant attention amid an education reform agenda focused mainly on accountability, standards and tests, teacher quality, and school management,” explains the report.

The report, titled “Student Motivation—An Overlooked Piece of School Reform,” and published by the CEP, is a summary of the findings pulled from student motivation studies from scholars in a long range of disciplines, as well as case studies from around the U.S. The purpose is to start a conversation about the topic of student motivation and how schools can ensure it’s happening.

“Student motivation isn’t a fixed quality but 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.”

The summary combines the highlights of six full papers that examine a range of themes and approaches, from the motivational power of video games and social media to the promises and pitfalls of paying students for good grades.

Each paper covers one of these six broad topics:

  1. What is motivation, and why does it matter?
  2. Can money and other rewards motivate students?
  3. Can goals motivate students?
  4. What roles do parents, family background, and culture play in student motivation?
  5. What can schools do to better motivate students?
  6. What nontraditional approaches to learning can motivate unenthusiastic students?

Understanding motivation

According to the report, if students aren’t motivated, it’s nearly impossible to improve their academic progress—no matter how good the teacher, curriculum, or school.

According to a 2004 analysis by the National Research Council, upwards of 40 percent of high school students reported being disengaged, and a 2006 survey exploring why students dropped out of school reported that 70 percent of high school dropouts said they were unmotivated.

But before educators can begin trying to motivate students, it’s important to know the different “dimensions of motivation,” says the report.

Meris Stansbury

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