Why “Motivating” Students Doesn’t Work

Why would educators gather for a 3-day workshop on the topic of learner motivation?  Frustration about consistently activating motivation in learners and at a loss for what to do next are feelings that all instructors have had at one point or another in their teaching journey.   At heart, motivation is a system based on judgement, perception, and emotion.  Student perceptions, mindsets, social status, prior experiences, and feelings of self-efficacy impact what is motivating and what is motivational.  Researchers remind us that motivation is a psychological concept that resists rules, steps, routines, or formulas that consistently correlate or connect with actual student behaviors observed during class time (Maclellan 2008).  For the groups learning together this summer, here is our WHY:  Motivation directly influences the development of independent learners who take responsibility for learning, it is a driving force in learner-centered instruction, and it is a crucial element in the mindset of learners who invest in their own success.  And we all want that.

So how can we bring our WHY to life?  The first step is to establish a foundation of information and understanding about research-based frameworks and theories about learner motivation, including ways motivation is connected to how learners view themselves and the key elements of achievement motivation.  John Keller’s ARCS Theory of Motivation lends itself well to lesson design, and Grant Wiggins’ expansive student surveys from 2013 about designing for learning correlate to the key roles Attention, Relevance, Confidence and Satisfaction play in designing learning experiences to promote motivation.  Using the ARCS Theory as a springboard, we dug a little deeper, and pulled out 2 aspects of Keller’s theory, Confidence and Satisfaction, to focus on.  The essential question of the workshop became this:  What can teachers do to positively influence achievement motivation in learners?

Approaching the concept of motivation from the learner perspective opens a window into this complex concept and begins to hint at answers to the essential question.  As ESL teacher and blogger Larry Ferlazzo notes:  

Anytime I hear or read about “motivating students,” I cringe a bit.  An organizing truism is that you might be able to bribe, cajole, badger, or threaten somebody to do something over the short-term.  But I don’t think you can really “motivate” anybody to do anything beyond a very, very, very short timeline, after which the initial enthusiasm quickly dissipates.  However, you can help another person find what will motivate themselves. (italics mine)

Ferlazzo’s quote defines the HOW for us:  How can I positively impact learner motivation and help learners find what will motivate themselves?   His quote also reveals a key element of motivation.  At some point, motivation is a choice, made individually, based on 

In answering the essential question, participants continually reflected on how teacher actions can have an influence on these factors.  As we walked through information on socio-cognitive approaches to motivation, we kept encountering the importance of the development of confidence and of broadening the definition of success as crucial moves teachers can consistently make that lead to a positive influence on learner motivation. 

  • emotion, 
  • past experience, 
  • perceived value of task or risk of positive outcome, or 
  • judgement of current or potential abilities.  

The last piece of the HOW puzzle was looking at influencing achievement motivation as laid out by McClelland and including connections to Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow Theory.  McClelland maintains that the need for achievement (striving for excellence), affiliation (seeking social interaction, and power (opportunities for autonomy, leadership, mentorship) are present in all learners, but in different proportions and to different extents.  Flow theory asks teachers to look through a student’s perspective to set up an environment that

  • contains enough challenge, 
  • matches current skills, 
  • has a narrow focus, 
  • can provide clear feedback, 
  • offers some autonomy, and 
  • results in a satisfying (successful from the student’s perspective) experience.  

These slices of motivation led participants to at least one answer to their WHAT question:  What can I do differently or do more of that will positively influence achievement motivation in learners? 

The lesson design framework most promising for teachers whose goal is to positively influence achievement motivation is the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model, specifically the We Do Guided and You Do Together stages.  The We Do Guided stage provides teachers opportunities to set up learning experiences with moderate challenge (ability + 1) and a narrow focus, and provide clear feedback based on risk-free processing with language.  At this stage inroads can be made toward building confidence in abilities, developing a history of success, and the fulfilling the need for achievement and affiliation.  The You Do Together phase is crucial in preparing learners to work independently from the teacher and trying out near transfer tasks with social learning support.  Those learners with higher needs for affiliation and power can get those needs met through collaborative social learning, and all learners benefit and grow feelings of autonomy when the teacher steps back into the role of coach and facilitator rather than instructor.  

Taking the time to allow learners to apply feedback in collaborative social learning experiences positively influences achievement in all important aspects.  Letting the learners do the heavy lifting in in terms of feedback is a powerful way to positively influence achievement motivation.  Using can-do statement based self-assessments (backed up with performance evidence), regular student self-reflection surveys focused on ownership & responsibility for learning, and periodic exit slips that empower learners to share their thoughts about effectiveness of activities, strategies, and lesson design respond to universal needs, strengthen expectancy, and reveal value—all crucial pieces of the motivation puzzle. The ultimate prize for teachers is to have all learners with this mindset:  I believe this task has value in reaching learning goals, I believe I can do this task, I believe I can do it well.  

By viewing learner motivation as a choice, and teachers as merely influencers of this choice, participants were able to gain clarity as to how their instructional moves can make a difference.  They were able to answer the workshop’s essential question with specific ways to adjust the classroom environment and learning experiences to create opportunities to positively influence learner motivation.  And we all want that.

Image credits: Steven Depolo / CC BY 2.0