A teacher’s hunt for evidence on whether motivation really matters

17th August 2018 at 00:00
Have we got motivation all wrong in our schools? Alex Quigley examines the research to find out

Do an image search online for the word “motivation” and you will be met with inspirational quotes coupled with images of mountaintops and heroic acts. It is no surprise, then, that we attempt to motivate our teenage students with a diet of assemblies heralding the survival skills of Bear Grylls, in the vain hope of inspiring them to stick at their humdrum homework assignments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this does not always seem to do the trick.

Instead, we need to hunt for the evidence on motivation to find out what really works.

So what do we know already? Well, we know that motivation is a driving force for all learning, inside and outside of the classroom. But in grappling with the evidence, I quickly realised that I too have been labouring under a mass of misapprehensions. Not only that, but most schools run systems of punishment and reward that fly in the face of the evidence on how to really motivate youngsters.

The first misapprehension that we should dispel concerns the ways in which motivation affects successful learning. We know that motivation matters, but perhaps not in the ways that we think. Take a moment to reflect on the behaviour system in your school. How much of the system is rooted in punishment and use of the metaphorical “stick” to beat our students into being successful learners? How many of our rewards promote a love of learning, compared with a quick-fix “carrot”?

Do you smell a rat?

A lot of our behaviour systems are still influenced by outmoded notions of behaviour and motivation. Back in the 1930s, Burrhus Frederic Skinner (commonly known as BF Skinner) conducted experiments in which rats would receive snacks if they operated small levers. When the clever rats worked out the connection, the theory of “operant conditioning” was born. A simplistic “stimulus-response” approach to learning is still the hallmark of many school systems nearly a century later: feed them treats and they’ll be motivated to learn.

Within this system, the role of the teacher becomes reduced to the issuing of rewards and punishments. “Thus good grades, praise, and privileges may be used to reinforce effort on assignments, and bad grades or loss of privileges may serve as punishment for low effort,” wrote Deborah J Stipek in 1996.

Of course, most teachers realise that our students are more savvy than rodents. Despite this, routine reward systems still reign in a lot of schools.

We should leave behind any simple notions of the carrot and the stick, if we are to inspire the type of motivation that matters.

The researcher, Edward Deci, conducted experiments on groups of US college students. When playing with a puzzle called Soma, one group was paid for successfully solving puzzles while the other group was not.

The results in the short term betrayed a crucial truth: when the financial rewards stopped, those students who were conditioned to receive the cash simply stopped playing. But the group who played for the intrinsic reward kept on playing after the experiment was over. The moral of the experiment: the praise, points or prizes we offer for doing well in class may be having exactly the opposite effect to the one we were aiming for.

Task masters

Most schools have a variation on the reward scheme, from house points to class charts, gold stars to cinema vouchers. But the evidence suggests that, too often, learning gets lost in pursuit of the reward. Meanwhile, the short-term successes that come from doling out rewards give us a false impression that our systems are working. Instead, we need to foster intrinsic motivation – when we learn for pleasure and purpose – over extrinsic motivation (the pursuit of external rewards).

Furthermore, we need to broaden our understanding of motivation. Researchers Broussard and Garrison (2004) posed three useful questions to frame how we should view motivation in the classroom:

•  Can I do this task?

•  Do I want to do this task and why?

•  What must I do to succeed in this task?

Here, motivation is rooted in the beliefs of the students in our classrooms. First, they consider whether they are capable of completing a task: are they confident enough? Do they know enough? Students who struggle in class will typically answer “no” to these questions and their motivation will be low as a result. No reward can break this vicious cycle.

What these students need from us are fewer “motivational” assemblies about Amazonian treks and more investment in developing a powerful curriculum that offers a map to unlock a world of knowledge.

The question “do I want to do this task?” will almost always come back to the powerful drive of “intrinsic motivation”: the love of learning that rewards simply can’t buy. This then leads to the important question of “what do I have to do to succeed in this task?”

If we free up the teacher from logging pointless routine rewards, we can find a little more time to offer the tools that will help our students to learn more effectively.

We can distil the research evidence around motivation and learning into four guiding principles for teachers:

Rather than encouraging our students to chase extrinsic rewards, get them to set their own achievable goals. This means we have to find ways to connect what they need to learn to their values.

Motivation is inextricably bound to achievement, so spend less time counting house points or stickers on the reward chart and more time building students’ confidence in their knowledge and understanding.

By removing the quick-fix solutions of routine reward systems, we can better celebrate the unique contributions of our students with meaningful celebrations of achievement.

Help students to pay less attention to grades (performance goals) and to spend more time on what they can do to improve (mastery goals).

Alex Quigley is director of the Huntington Research School in York and author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap


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