How to motivate all your students to revise

2nd March 2017 at 16:30
A group of motivated children with teacher
Teachers often think that a 'carrot and stick' approach is needed to give students the motivation to revise. But getting your class ready for exams is more complicated than that. Helen Amass meets motivation specialist Tory Higgins to get some advice on the revision process

Instilling revision motivation in your class in the run-up to exams might seem as though it’s a decision between the carrot and the stick. But, according to Tory Higgins, motivating students to revise is more complicated than this.

As the director of the Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Centre, Higgins is used to being asked about the best way to get people to do things they don’t want to do. And most of those who approach him do so with the same incorrect assumption that motivation is all about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain ─ about carrots and sticks.

Teachers can certainly be guilty of such beliefs, often relying on systems of sanctions and rewards to motivate students to do everything from handing homework in on time to revising for exams. This, Higgins suggests, is all wrong.

'It's not about pleasure and pain'

“What’s fundamental about humans is that they want to be effective – it’s not about pleasure and pain,” he explains. “That’s why people will do lots of things that end up making them feel successful that can actually be painful. The X Games [extreme sports event] is full of people doing dangerous things that are really effortful, even painful, but what matters to them is the sense that they’re being effective. So, that’s fundamental for education: if they want students to be motivated, they need to set the conditions for students to feel that they’re being effective.”

Higgins' work in motivation research came from a very personal prompt. After receiving a BA in anthropology from McGill University and a PhD in psychology from Columbia University, Higgins went through a period of depression that, at the time, felt impossible to combat.

“I could not understand what was happening to me. I promised myself that, if I recovered, I would try to figure out why I was depressed,” he says.

It was the start of Higgins becoming a motivation scientist. His work since has concentrated on how people get that sense of effectiveness that is so integral to motivation. He came to realise that being effective is not just as simple as realising a goal, like achieving a predicted grade: it can be more complex than that.

The secrets behind revision motivation

“I distinguish between two kinds of orientations, and call these promotion and prevention,” says Higgins. “In promotion, you experience your goal pursuits as aspirations. You think of what you’re doing as moving from the current status quo to something better. The prevention system is quite different, because it’s concerned with doing what you ought to do. It’s concerned about safety and security. If you keep everything OK, then that’s what’s good, and what’s bad is if you slip and make a mistake.”

So while one student may be motivated to revise in order to better themselves, another may revise because they fear what will happen if they don’t. The end result – feeling effective – is motivating but they feel effective for different reasons.

Tailoring revision for different students

The problem with these two different orientations is that an approach that will bring revision motivation to one student can actually be demotivating for another. For example, Higgins says, promotion-oriented students respond well to an eager and enthusiastic teacher, while prevention-oriented students feel more comfortable with a teacher who seems careful and relaxed.

Activity type also counts. Higgins’ research has shown that promotion people tend to be more motivated by tasks where they are allowed to be creative or pioneering, whereas prevention people prefer analytical tasks that require a logic-driven approach.

He suggests that teachers should make sure that they plan revision activities that cover the preferences of both orientations. Some tasks should allow students to innovate and try new things, while others should require them to stick to the facts and use reasoning. If you can strike a balance between these two approaches, you will be on the right track to motivating all your students to revise.

Marketing your revision 

“The good news is that people are responsive to anything in the message that fits them,” says Higgins. “In advertising, you need to have both kinds of messages in what you’re saying. So you talk about what you’re doing or what matters in a promotion language and a prevention language. Good politicians will often talk in this aspirational, optimistic way and during the same speech will bring in issues about safety and security.”

This means that when you deliver your next spiel about how important revision is, it’s more likely to actually sink in if you can incorporate appeals to the two types of student, talking both about advancement and about maintaining the status quo.

“Motivation is critical to how well we learn, because you’re not going to learn unless you’re engaged. And the extent to which you pay attention to something or engage with something is a choice. Whenever you’re talking about people giving a priority to one choice over another, you’re talking motivation. So it’s absolutely basic,” says Higgins.

This article is adapted from an original piece by Helen Amass published in TES magazine on 3 March 2017

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