Fostering Internal Motivation

Justin looks over the math problem, pondering how to solve it. “If I multiply these two numbers, and then add this number, I think I can find the surface area,” he ponders. “Yes, it works!” he grins, and looks up at the teacher with a satisfied expression. He has worked through the problem on his own and has come up with a satisfactory conclusion.            

Recently I was discussing with a group of seasoned teachers from Christian schools the changes we had seen in education over the last twenty-five years. One difference we all saw was the gradual decline in students’ internal motivation for excellence. Perhaps we were showing the “good-old-days” syndrome where we didn’t remember accurately, but we all agreed that students seem much more willing to settle for mediocrity now than before. And certainly, we agreed, students require much more spurring from the teacher to complete assignments, especially if the assignments are not entertaining. What had caused this, we wondered. Was it because COVID had interrupted the education of these students, reducing the value of education in their minds? Was it because so much of children’s worlds today are based on entertainment? Was it because we teachers needed to change teaching methods to match current students?            

Educational researcher Anna Schwan recognizes that “assessing and measuring motivation is difficult because it is an internal function, and assessing an individual’s motivational state relies on observable behaviors or directly asking” (1). But by observation, teachers recognize that motivated students show interest and effort and are willing to try new things while unmotivated students lack direction and are detached from the learning environment.  

So how do we move students from the unmotivated to the self-motivated stage? Here are some intellectual and hands-on practices to encourage your students in self-motivation.            

Philosophical methods of encouraging student self-motivation  

  1. Schwan says, “Before any attempts to understand motivation or respond to motivation, educators must develop meaningful relationships with their students” (4). These relationships allow the teacher to base things on what students are actually interested in and also to recognize why there may be at times a lack of motivation. If you know that Cherice loves kittens, you can add numbers of kittens together in your sample math problem. Or on a more serious note, if you know that Jason’s parents are struggling at home, you can have sympathy with him rather than being annoyed when his eyes glaze over instead of focusing on his reading assignment. Students react positively to a teacher they know cares about them, thus increasing their desire to learn in that teacher’s classroom.
  2. Schwan also suggests teachers should help students to understand why what they are learning matters and how they can use it in the future (4). To do this, the teacher can create real-life learning experiences. So when teaching formulas in algebra class, you can do a sample problem that figures the amount of feed needed for Calvin’s cattle. Or when dividing fractions, you can bring measuring cups and make half a batch of chocolate chip cookies. When students see that what they are learning actually matters in real life, they will be motivated to prepare for their future now.
  3. Another way to increase student motivation is for the teachers to model enthusiasm for what they are teaching. If the students know that the teacher cares, they are more apt to care. And enthusiasm is contagious. On a recent student survey at the end of a college class I taught, one of my lower scores was for “enthusiasm over subject taught.” Now granted, this was an early morning class in the winter, and class started when it was still dark out. But I really was excited about the class even though I evidently didn’t show it. I made a concentrated effort to demonstrate my enthusiasm in the next class, by sharing what I liked about the content discussed and by varying my vocal presentation.
  4. Teachers can also prompt students to be self-motivated by helping them set high yet achievable goals. When students are a part of setting the goals, they feel included in the need to reach them. They should also track their progress to those goals and self-reflect on their efforts. For example, when writing an essay, the teacher can meet individually with each student to go over the rough draft. Together, the teacher and student can determine what needs to be changed for the final draft. Then with the final draft, the student can include a sentence or two explaining how he or she met the goal.
  5. A fifth way of teachers helping students be self-motivated comes from encouraging personal satisfaction upon reaching the goal. While we don’t want to build pride, it is acceptable for students to acknowledge that they achieved their objective and to feel glad about that. Teachers should praise students for meeting their goals. Intrinsic motivation is fed by recognizing that growth is attainable.

  Quick, practical ways to build student self-motivation  

  1. Teachers often fall back on extrinsic or outside prompts for the classes that are difficult to motivate. And sometimes this is helpful and necessary. So add a kernel of popcorn to the jar each class period that the class is quiet; then have a popcorn party when the jar is full. But be careful not to make the goal too easy and not to depend solely on rewards for motivation. Once habits and patterns are developed, extrinsic rewards can fade into intrinsic rewards (although there is nothing wrong with rewarding small prizes for goals achieved).
  2. Another method of increasing self-motivation in students is to offer different types of experiences. Hands-on activities such as making homemade ice cream in a ziplock bag for science class, field trips to local museums, guest speakers from your church who can tell about their career–these offer variety for the student who is not as interested in traditional classroom lessons. Parents are a great resource for this, as many are willing to do a craft activity or science experiment, particularly if the lesson is about an area of their expertise.
  3. Teachers can also encourage student motivation by making things fun—but also explaining that not everything in life is fun. Games, projects, and crafts are all appropriate ways to increase the “fun-ness” in the classroom. A little friendly competition also builds students’ participation. But sometimes basic reading and writing assignments are acceptable and even the best method of teaching.
  4. A final quick way to increase self-motivation is to encourage students to focus on their interests when they have a choice of topic (and give them a choice whenever possible). When I had just started teaching, I had a student choose to study and give a speech on roses. She didn’t care about flowers, knew nothing about them, and was obviously bored with the entire project. As a more seasoned teacher, I would have told her to change her topic to one that interested her. Then her interest would have prompted her learning.

    Works Cited   Schwan, Anna. “Perceptions of Student Motivation and Amotivation.” Clearing House, vol. 94, no. 2, Mar. 2021, pp. 76-82. EBSCOhost, 00098655.2020.1867490.

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