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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.

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:

  • No single strategy will work to motivate all students. Motivation varies, not only among students but also within the same student depending on the task and context. Motivating students often requires a combination of strategies that address the specific reasons why a student has become disengaged.
  • Strategies to improve motivation should be implemented carefully and thoughtfully. Effective strategies address some or all of the four dimensions of motivation. Effective school-based strategies to bolster motivation are often implemented in concert with changes in curriculum and instruction, faculty and student relationships, or school climate and organization.
  • Improving student motivation cannot be accomplished by schools alone. Efforts to develop motivation should begin early and address social factors that can sap motivation. Partnerships among schools, families, and communities can be effective in creating the conditions that develop and support motivation in children.

CEP acknowledges that not all aspects of motivation are fully understood, and that “most programs or studies that have shown some positive results have been small or geographically concentrated.”

“Because much about motivation is not known, this series of papers should be viewed as a springboard for discussion by policy makers, educators, and parents, rather than a conclusive research review,” said Nancy Kober, CEP consultant and co-author of the report.

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Meris Stansbury

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