How can schools better motivate students?


For example, intrinsic motivation is the desire to do or achieve something because one truly wants to and takes pleasure or sees value in doing so. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do or achieve something not so much for the enjoyment of the activity itself, but because it will provide a certain result.

The four dimensions of motivation are competence, control/autonomy, interest/value, and relatedness, which the report describes in more detail.

Show me the money … or the smart phone

In looking at many diverse studies, it seems schools have tried everything from awarding students smart phones to simply paying them in cash. But do rewards always work?

According to the report, it’s only in understanding motivation that rewards have a fair chance at succeeding.

For example, in one case study, students who were paid to increase their test scores produced no improvement in scores or grades, in part because students had little knowledge of how to control their test scores. However, paying students for reading books and taking a corresponding quiz produced the best results—a dramatic rise in standardized test scores, which continued at about half the rate of gain in the year after the program ended. This achievement worked because reading was within a student’s control.

Therefore, the most successful reward systems seem to be those that use near-continuous assessment of behavior, applied rules consistently, had strong alignments among school personnel, and rewarded behaviors that were under students’ control.

Many other insights and revelations into reward systems, including the size and scope of the reward, can be found in the report.

Do students actually like goals?

They do, the report says, if the goals are suggested, or at least embraced, by the student, the student must be able to see a clear path for attaining the goal, and the goal is supported by people important to the student.

“Mastery-based goals, which involve demonstrating increased understanding, skills, and content knowledge, are preferable to performance-based goals, which involve reaching a predefined level or performance or outperforming others,” explains the report.

However, studies also indicate that goals actually can undermine motivation if they are too difficult, or if students feel that a goal has been imposed on them or that failing to meet it would have dire consequences.

Another seemingly obvious finding, though it’s often forgotten, is to help students understand why reaching a particular goal is important to them.

For example, the report explains that while programs that simply encourage students to attend college have had some limited success, the most positive results have been found in programs that helped students understand what they needed to do to get into college and provided them with counseling, academic support, and other services. “The goal is also more motivating if students can see for themselves the value of attending college and if their peers and respected adults support this goal,” the report states.

The report also describes the role schools can play in student motivation, nontraditional approaches to motivate students, and actions that might help improve student motivation.

In their research, the authors found several cross-cutting themes:

Meris Stansbury

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