A Common Concern
As a School Psychologist, I get a lot of referrals about students that seem to lack motivation. I have the belief that most students want to succeed. A lot of the time the lack of motivation can come from trying and trying and not ever come close to reaching or even progressing in one’s academic goals. Sometimes it can stem from the frustration of seeing other students succeed with ease and feeling inadequate or inferior when a student struggles with something that other students don’t. While lack of interest or defiance can come into play, sometimes it is helpful to take a closer look at why a student doesn’t seem interested in school.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
When I was in graduate school my professor gave us a lecture that I will never forget. He talked about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. While there is no good way to completely separate the two out, extrinsic motivation deals with rewards given for a desired behavior such as candy or a prize. A person with intrinsic motivation does things because the activity itself is rewarding. My professor argued that relying only on external rewards can reduce a student’s motivation in the long run. A student becomes dependent on getting a reward and never takes a personal investment in learning.
Research has shown that students who are intrinsically motivated will be more likely to engage in a task willingly, work to improve their skills and achieve higher in terms of capability. In the end, a student with some degree of intrinsic motivation to learn is more likely to take initiative, solve problems and concoct innovative ideas. Ultimately this should produce a citizen that is able to create value in the workplace and strengthen our economy. These are lofty ideals, but he was a university professor and I was a wide-eyed graduate student that just couldn’t wait put this into practice.
So I volunteered to take on the most unmotivated students in order to test this theory out. I wanted the students to take on the attitudes of intrinsic learners by believing that they could control academic outcomes, develop better learning strategies than memorization and learn for reasons other than grades.
The idea was appealing but in truth, I had no idea how to define and measure intrinsic motivation. In doing research I noted that the profiles of intrinsically motivated students involved what learning psychologists call metacognitive strategies . Metacognitive strategies are quite simply, thinking about thought. When a student has metacognitive strategies he or she understands what works best for them when learning rather than just memorizing facts or “getting stuck” at the sign of a first obstacle.
Earlier I had said that most students want to succeed. My theory was that some “unmotivated” students may lack metacognitive strategies. For this group I decided to try and design some way to explicitly teach metacognitive strategies but have the students apply the strategies to an activity that they had already found to be inherently enjoyable. In a sense, I wanted the students to “learn how to learn”.
I promised the students that I would help them in learning a hobby. The idea was, if the student was able to delve into something they truly cared about — whether it was music, art or mechanics – they would be more willing to develop problem-solving strategies, discipline and goal-monitoring skills. I had the students create goals in their new hobby. After every session I would individually coach them on how to evaluate their progress. They would answer questions like: did I meet my objective today, do my objectives help me meet my overall goal or are my objectives realistic. They would need to end each session with a list of what skills, resources or knowledge was necessary to take the next step.
The first tool that I used was emphasizing the positive. I tried to show them that effort leads to a reward. I set an expectation (which was really based in their goals) and gave rewards in the form of gold certificates passed out in front of all the students. I observed the students working above and beyond expectations. They would offer to help, encourage others and nominate their “teammates” for awards. What amazed me was that a student who normally had to be told step-by-step how to do a math equation would focus, concentrate, organize and plan for a full 30 minutes without prompting or redirection in carrying out a plan that he had personal investment in.
At the beginning of every session the students were to evaluate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10. They would receive some type of reward (like free time) if they rated themselves in a way similar to my rating. This is to help them develop skills in self-evaluation.
While some external motivators were used along the way with the gold certificates, I noticed that the students began to independently take the lessons to the next level. For example, when I asked them to rate their behavior on a scale between 1 to 10 they would begin to provide a rationale of each rating without being encouraged to explain their answer. This is a key behavioral trait of a motivated learner, going above and beyond the standard. In time, the students often preferred to work on their goals as a reward. I eventually stopped using the certificates altogether. Students felt that the group taught him how to take his school work seriously and another student stated that it taught him how to try different things in order to solve a problem.
The teachers noted an improvement in the following behaviors: articulating how to solve a problem, participating in group sessions, identifying assumptions behind an argument and monitoring progress of tasks. The teachers noticed that the students were improved in confidence and the students handled setbacks in a more mature manner. The initial feedback was good with the suggestion of more direct links to the classroom. The improved behavior and attitudes of the students shows that this is a promising program that has much potential.