The Art of Academic Motivation

Parents are eager to motivate their children, particularly when it comes to academics. I’ve seen parents dangle tremendous incentives (e.g., upscale automobiles) as well as threaten stiff consequences (e.g., distant boarding schools) to encourage their children to maintain certain academic standards. Carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, encouragement and threats: parents have tried them all. Any of these techniques can be effective for a time, but, when deciding which motivational strategy to employ with your own children, I’d encourage you to first consider the type of relationship you’d like your child to have with learning and education today and in the future.

When it comes to motivation, there is a broad consensus among educational researchers that positive reinforcement is superior in efficacy and creates fewer negative effects than the use of threats or punishment. Threats and punishments can be highly effective in the short term, but they can fundamentally transform your child’s relationship to the behavior you are trying to motivate, as well as impact your child’s senses of self, identity and autonomy. In a similar fashion, many academic researchers discourage the excessive use of tangible rewards to motivate. Whether you are using carrots or sticks, attempts to manipulate your children with external consequences can have unintended long-term effects, despite their short-term efficacy.

Some parents have an interesting view of motivation, and they express this in statements such as, “Jason has no motivation,” as if there were some vital essence that had drained from their son. This perception, however, is flawed. Human behavior, as a rule, is motivated. If Jason is sitting on the couch and texting his friends rather than doing his homework, he’s making a highly motivated decision. Students may certainly be low on motivation for a particular task, at a particular time, relative to other alternatives, but it’s most rare to find a student generally low on motivation.

When Jason is playing video games until all hours of the night, he is demonstrating a certain type of motivation. Like Jason, in my childhood I would stay up until all hours of the night to finish a puzzle, complete a video game, or finish a book at the expense of sleep. Jason and I were experiencing what researchers call intrinsic motivation—motivation independent of any external reward. An intrinsically motivated individual will pursue an activity for the sake of the activity, because it’s fun, challenging, or satisfying in some capacity. By contrast, extrinsic motivation is externally focused, with an expectation of an external reward.

Many young people, just like me and Jason, love a challenge, a chance to test their mettle, an opportunity to overcome obstacles and come out ahead. When motivation for a particular task is low, there are four words that can act as a remedy: “Let’s play a game.” Many unmotivated students light up in the face of a challenge, a chance to win or lose. Competition can turn students on, particularly boys. Together we can agree upon the new constraints in which we will play: perhaps we will ratchet up the timing constraints, or add some limitation, or set a lofty goal. A game emerges, and honoring the sage counsel of renowned educational researcher, Mary Poppins, what was tedious can become more fun and more intrinsically motivating.

Although most academic activities have an extrinsic component (e.g., the pursuit of a grade), ideally they will also evoke a measure of intrinsic motivation, such as the genuine pleasure from learning and experiencing a heightened sense of mastery. Some students are more academically motivated than others, and many students reserve their academic motivation for a particular subset of academic subjects. It’s no secret that most of us tend to like the things we are good at and to dislike those that are more challenging for us.

When a student seems unmotivated for an academic task, there is a reasonable likelihood that the student doubts his or her ability to successfully accomplish the task. Few of us run towards activities that may result in frustration or failure, which can be quite tough on the ego. When one of my students tells me “I hate math,” that’s frequently code for “I dislike how math makes me feel less capable than I’d like to be.” If I can help a student feel more competent in math, amazingly, that dislike for math will frequently diminish. Thus, one of the most useful interventions to help the seemingly unmotivated student is to facilitate a mastery experience, to structure an experience that affords the student a feeling of success in accomplishing a task. Success begets more success.

Albert Bandura, a giant in the field of motivation, demonstrated repeatedly that mastery experiences can be instrumental in shifting an individual’s belief in his or her ability to accomplish similar tasks in the future. Verbal persuasion — i.e., telling someone, “You can do it!” — is moderately effective at changing beliefs, and watching peers succeed may also have a small effect on a person’s beliefs about their own capabilities. However, nothing has as profound an effect upon someone’s beliefs about their own competency as experiencing personal successes, however small. In my practice, I’ve been continually impressed by the power of small successes to help students recalibrate their self-perceptions and overcome limiting self-beliefs.

Most of my students who come into our sessions “hating” an academic subject simply hate looking bad; they hate feeling frustrated, incompetent or embarrassed by their performance. Sometimes they’ve mentally checked out and refuse to put their egos on the line by risking failure or further embarrassment. In these cases, we need to step back and reframe the whole experience. Leaning heavily upon Carol Dweck’s work on learning mindsets, I insist that my students maintain a growth mindset in our sessions. We work to create an environment in which mistakes are viewed as the foundation of learning and growth, the fuel for the most rapid advancement the student can attain.

When an activity is too hard for a student, I attempt to bring the activity back to the right level of difficulty, keeping the student in Lev Vygotsky’s celebrated Zone of Proximal Development, in which most learning takes place. I may need to provide more scaffolding, guiding the student heavily until the student is ready to handle the harder problems independently. With every success the student attains, I will ask the student to tell me what is contributing to his or her success. Tell me what you did that helped you solve this problem? What steps did you take? Why do you think this was effective? I ask my students to articulate their cognitive process and behaviors using their own language, thereby enhancing their awareness of their own learning. This works for younger children as well as older ones. As educational psychologists have discovered, meta-cognition, or the awareness of one’s own learning process, is fundamental to building great learners.

Beyond encouraging mastery experiences, I have found that I can motivate my students by engendering in them what researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan call “autonomy” and “relatedness.” When it comes to autonomy, the key is to give students as much choice as possible. Choice is motivating. When tutoring, I frequently let my student choose what we study first, where we study, and sometimes how we study. Any time I can let a student make a choice, no matter how small, I do so.

As another means of fostering a sense of autonomy, I minimize the use of controlling language, avoiding words such as must, should, or ought. Rather than use words, which might create a sense of coercion, I try to develop “buy in” by tying the student’s values to the task at hand. Through our dialogue, I can better assess the particular values this student holds dear. Many students engaged in tutoring will crave additional free time to pursue their nonacademic interests. If we can expedite the academic task and accomplish it more efficiently, we can gain some cherished free time for the student, thus serving their values. Older students can frequently engage in a broader conversation about how academic performance can help them attain their longer term goals, such as gaining access to a particular college experience or career opportunity, given they’ve imagined that far into their future.

To achieve “relatedness,” it’s important to keep the relationship with the student positive. Attend to a student’s feelings and acknowledge and validate them whenever possible, thus conveying a sense of respect for the student. Provide regular positive feedback, or “informational rewards,” to help students feel competent and to help them accurately track their progress and growth. Be specific and accurate with this feedback to help students better calibrate their self-appraisals. Specific and accurate feedback also helps build the credibility behind the appraisals you provide. Lobbing a generic “great job” or “good work” leaves room for the student to think: “But I got so many math problems wrong!” Instead, offer a specific example of what the student truly did well: “I see you wrote down all of your steps when methodically working through that math problem, which is a great way to ensure accuracy and reduce the likelihood of careless errors.” With time, encourage students to reflect more upon and appraise their own learning and growth. Students ideally will come to rely upon their own perceptions of competence and ability rather than upon external comparisons or appraisals.

When it comes to using rewards other than informational rewards, be careful not to undermine intrinsic motivation. Once you introduce a reward and then remove it, you can fundamentally transform a student’s relationship with the original activity, even going as far as to undermine any intrinsic motivation that was present before the introduction of the reward. Edward Deci and colleagues found that they could destroy participant’s desire to play a game once they had introduced and extinguished a tangible reward that was tied to the outcome of the game. Thus, use non-informational rewards with caution! And be careful if you are going to attach a monetary outcome to an activity and subsequently extinguish the monetary reinforcement, as this technique can completely backfire. As a rule, use verbal/informational rewards liberally, but tangible rewards sparingly.

In closing, whenever possible, attempt to motivate without manipulating. Keep autonomy at the forefront, and focus on building feelings of competence and mastery. Research suggests that these techniques can help you develop your child into a lifelong learner whose motivation will be intrinsic rather than reliant upon external rewards or punishments.

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