Motivation in Education
A few nights ago, my friend Jamin Carson, a professor of education at ECU, lamented to me that some of his teachers-in-training were so obsessed with motivating their students that they failed to help the students learn the class content. They would, for example, create rap songs about math topics to engage the students. The students might remember the lyrics to the song, but they could not apply the knowledge in any meaningful way. Ultimately, the attempt at motivation failed. I read about another game that was designed to teach grade school students about biology. Unfortunately, students were motivated to play the game but not motivated to learn. These observations came back to me today as I was researching and writing about motivation in MOOCs.
First off, let me state for the record that motivation is essential for education. Students must want to and be motivated to learn before it can happen. They are not passive receptacles where knowledge is poured. And research as shown that the more intrinsically motivated a student is to learn, the better they will learn it. External motivations, like grades or gold stars, are much poorer at inspiring learning. Students with just external motivation tend to pay less attention, work less on assignments, and value the outcome lower. They still can learn, but it is limited. Researchers Deci and Ryan found that external motivation exists on a continuum from more external to more internal focus.
On the flip side, it is hard for teachers to motivate students when they are not naturally interested in subject or interested in education in general. Teachers can easily establish grades, but cannot as easily induce buy-in of the course goals and objectives. In fact, teachers cannot induce intrinsic motivation, since it by definition requires no external source. Some students arrive in a class already intrinsically motivated, but those are a very small group. For the rest, teachers must try to induce motivation for learning to occur. Often, the more effort teachers put into motivation, assuming it is appropriate, the more students adopt the class goals as their own, put forth effort, and retain knowledge presented in the course.
Teachers often have students throughout the continuum of interest in a subject. As class sizes increase, the gap in motivation may widen while the instructor’s time comes at a higher premium. With more students, less time is available for the teacher to reach and connect with each of the students. So teachers must balance the time spent motivating with the time spent doing other in-class activities to aid learning. Unfortunately, when pressures increase on retaining the sheer volume of information (like found in some traditional education circles), then less time is available for motivating appropriately. Teachers often fall back to simple gimmicks like grades. Also unfortunately, when pressures to increase motivation grow to frantic levels (like found in some progressive educators), less time and effort is available for directing conceptual integration leaving students a disintegrated mess.
Realistically, teachers cannot motivate all students the same. But there are a number of best practices that work well at motivating students toward internalizing learning goals. I’ll leave it up to Jamin and other education professors to identify those best practices.