Can your pupils ‘catch’ motivation?

The idea that a teacher’s enthusiasm can be infectious is nothing new but, as Dan Worth finds, the issue goes even deeper – to pupils’ status within their social groups and their influence on peers
13th December 2019, 12:04am
Can You Catch Motivation?
Dan Worth


Can your pupils ‘catch’ motivation?

We've all seen it happen: one of the team comes into school in the worst mood possible and, despite everyone's best efforts, that ill feeling manages to spread to everyone else. It's not to the same intensity in the others, but everyone is a lot grumpier than they were when they arrived that morning.

When it is a school leader, the effect is so much worse: those in charge can make or break a teacher's day.

And pupils? The mood of one can lift - or bring down - all the others, too.

Why are moods so easily "caught" like this? It's all down to emotional contagion - the idea that our emotions are affected by those around us and can spread between individuals, both consciously and subconsciously. The reasons for this are complex, but a key part of the theory is that the mirror neurons in our brains are primed to recognise the emotional states of others to help us understand how they are feeling and make sense of the world in a social context (Dimberg, Elmehed and Thunberg, 2000).

For teachers, of particular interest should be the impact of this "contagion" effect on motivation. The ways in which teachers influence pupil motivation have been relatively well researched, but there is another aspect to motivation in the classroom that has been less well studied: how pupils' motivations, or lack thereof, influence one another.

Kou Murayama, a professor at the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, who has been involved in research to understand this, sums up the issue: "If you imagine a classroom, where half are motivated and half are tired, then will the motivated students influence the tired students or will the tired ones influence the motivated ones? For now, there are no empirical studies that differentiate the possibilities [of which factor will influence the other] so we don't know what will happen when a classroom is divided."

As part of an attempt to build knowledge in this area, a team at Reading, led by PhD candidate Laura Burgess, measured the motivational engagement of 299 pupils in maths and English classes at a local school. They also asked the students to specify their friends within their year group.

The results are currently being written up, but Burgess reveals that the data suggests that if a student in a position of high influence in their social network is highly motivated towards a subject, it provides the potential for that student to increase the overall motivation of the group's other pupils. This was especially notable in one group studied, in which students with high levels of social network influence displayed high levels of interest in maths.

"We can see the possible impact from influential students in their opportunity to influence motivation - it is all down to the motivational orientation of the individuals in the cohorts," says Burgess.

She cautions that the data was only taken from a single time point and could change over time, as influencer roles changed. But she does think that the value of targeting influential children in order to influence the whole - something teachers have long felt intuitively - may have some science behind it.

"We can learn through vicarious experience and get a sense of reward from [someone else's] enjoyment of something," Burgess argues. "If we see someone doing something and getting enjoyment from it - even if we have not experienced that thing ourselves - we are motivated in a positive sense towards that activity."

Murayama elaborates further: "Even if a student does not know anything about a specific topic, if their friend enjoyed working on that and they observed that, then the student can hypothetically generate internal enjoyment, [which will] strengthen their motivation."

Burgess says that, on a practical level, this means teachers should seize any opportunity to use a child who is both motivated and influential when demonstrating something to a class. "[A teacher] could harness the enthusiasm of those who are motivated in a peer-led activity to give them a chance to express that enthusiasm," she suggests.

It also makes peer feedback a powerful tool: if key influencers are giving your subject, lessons or projects a poor reputation in the playground, the research suggests you are likely to struggle more to motivate pupils in class.

But what if you do lose that battle - and negative behaviours start to appear? Unfortunately, this negative feeling spreads just as easily via emotional contagion, says Burgess.

"If you see a kid playing up and being naughty and seemingly getting appreciation for that, then that becomes the motivating thing to do," she explains.

Here is where a teacher's influence matters. There is a lot of research on ways in which teachers can better motivate learners, but the emotional side of motivation is perhaps given less airtime than it deserves, according to academics in the field of emotional contagion.

They stress that it is not just about teachers modelling a task and providing extrinsic motivation (good grades, bright future prospects, etc), but modelling engagement with that task - showing pupils how to love it and showing them that you as the teacher love it, too - is just as crucial.

"The way a teacher influences motivation through emotional contagion is really important," says Murayama. "Of course, if it's too emotional, that could be negative, but teachers should not try to suppress their emotions too much."

Fake it 'til you make it?

The benefits of this have been indicated by prior research. A 2009 University of Munich paper (Frenzel, Goetz, Lüdtke and Pekrun, 2009) sampled 1,763 students for their enjoyment of maths at two time points, as well as 71 teachers on their enjoyment of teaching the classes, to see if the two correlated. They did.

"The findings of the study indicate that teacher enjoyment and student enjoyment in mathematics classrooms are closely linked and that the effects of teacher enjoyment on student enjoyment are mediated by teachers' displayed enthusiasm," the paper concludes.

However, Murayama concedes that optimum "enjoyment" is difficult to model amid the realities of teaching for long periods of time: if you're flagging by the end of the lesson, pupils will notice and react accordingly.

"As time passes, the intensity of an emotion decreases. So, you can see how it is quite possible for classes of 35 to 40 minutes to start with the intention of expressing positive emotion, but as you get tired, your intensity of interaction may also deteriorate and students will notice - and they also have a feeling of tiredness because of this," he says.

Difficulty in maintaining positive emotions is made even tougher if that teacher is under huge accountability or workload pressure, if there are constant behavioural issues, or if things outside of school are causing stress or negative emotions. No teacher would want to bring negative emotions into a classroom, but it can be hard to mask them. "It is easy to say 'you should only express positive emotions', but emotions are automatic and we cannot control them well," says Murayama.

What we can do, apparently, is convincingly fake positive emotions. This was something the University of Munich research picked up on, with many teachers admitting that they would sometimes "force" themselves to be more enthusiastic for a particularly dry lesson, or when teaching a challenging group of students. The research suggests teachers can do this convincingly, although not a great deal of work has been done in this area.

Emotional-contagion effects around motivation are, as the academics above have made clear, in the early stages of research compared with other fields. Yet, intuitively, many teachers will look at the above and recognise some truth in what is being put forward. Learning from someone who is passionate about what they do makes the love of that content infectious. With science beginning to give us a reason why, we can begin to unpick which conditions help it to shine through - and which ones don't.

Dan Worth is a content writer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 13 December 2019 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...Motivation: can you 'catch' it?"

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