“Come on, you can do it!”
They were wrong.
In my youth I played a sport that makes up a chunk of many-a-child’s early athletic endeavors. My father was passionate about it. My older brother was MVP of his high school team. And I…just didn’t get it. In the final game of my final year of eligibility, by some fluke of fate, I managed two significant plays. In an entire season of mediocrity those two plays were what stayed in the minds of the coaches, and I was named to the all-star team. The “honor” meant practicing beyond the season’s end and playing games against all-star teams from other locales.
My father was proud. My older brother thought, for the first time, that I might follow in his footsteps.
I was miserable. Miserable and unmotivated. Somehow I maintained a pulse despite a lack of heart for the game; I was merely a body filling a position.
My coach and teammates yelled endless go-get-‘em, show-’em-what-you’ve-got’s to no avail. I didn’t get the sport. Never did. It was meaningless to me, and I was definitely the team’s weakest link. Without motivation, I remained in my mediocrity, not interested in learning how to improve. This is the only time I can remember my parents allowing me to quit something I had started, and I’m sure their allowance immediately improved the team.
An Elusive Drive
Motivation is elusive. In part because motivation is idiosyncratic. We all assign different levels of significance and meaning to different things. What captivated my father and brother’s interests seemed like only a time-filler to me. Part of discovering ourselves is finding those things that spur us to action—meaningful, intentionally chosen action. When we find these captivating pursuits, our inner drive kicks in and we act with purpose, passion, and even inspiration.
Students are individuals. What motivates one may not motivate another, which is why a blanket approach, be it “sticks” or “carrots,” rarely works, especially long term. I once used a reading motivational program initiated by a national restaurant chain. I’d set monthly goals for students and if they achieved them they received a certificate to use at the restaurant. For a month or two, I’d have 80%+ of my students achieve the goal. Then the achievement rate took a dip, followed by another and another, until only a few students were achieving the monthly goals. I was trying to motivate individuals with a one-size-fits-all approach, and my use of extrinsic motivation probably negatively influenced any intrinsic motivation some of my students had for reading.
One Hot Potato
Motivation seems to be our controversy of the moment. On one “side” we have famous authors and speakers suggesting that extrinsic motivation is wasted energy. On the other, we have researchers paying students for various academic-related achievements. We can cite research that supports both perspectives, which leaves us arguing over philosophical stances and pragmatic solutions.
Let’s step away from the shouting for a moment and consider principles that can guide our thinking about motivation and learning.
Extrinsic Motivation: Be Specific in the Short-term
Focusing attention on a post-task reward can promote action. For example, I love Boston Cream Pie (which isn’t a pie at all), but it’s not a common dessert here in Alabama where banana pudding is more the norm. Once in a while the urge to taste the delicious combination of cake, cream, and dark chocolate moves my attention and action to the kitchen. I bake the dessert so I can eat the dessert. The reward at the end of the task moves me and makes me move. I don’t enjoy the process of baking enough to make Boston Cream Pie every day, every week, or even every month. But occasionally, the reward at the end is enough to make me don a baker’s cap (at least figuratively).
This example illustrates some important principles for using extrinsic motivation.
First, extrinsic motivation is best used for short-term, measurable tasks. Research suggests that attempts at using extrinsic motivation long-term actually end up undermining motivation. An initial burst of activity is typically followed by decreased drive and achievement. Daniel Pink suggests using extrinsic motivation only when there is no intrinsic motivation that may be undermined.1
Short-term extrinsic motivation can be effective if the task is concrete and measurable. For example, Roland Fryer Jr.’s controversial research found that paying students for high test scores or good grades was far less effective than paying students for each book they read.2 The reason: students knew how to achieve the reward for reading a book but did not necessarily know what to do to raise their test scores or grades. For extrinsic motivation to be effective, the targeted action needs to be specific and the individual needs to know exactly how to accomplish the desired goal.
Daniel Pink describes such tasks as those that “require following a prescribed set of rules to a specific end.”3 The message: offering extrinsic motivation for vague concepts, such as good behavior or more effort, is unlikely to succeed. Using extrinsic motivation for specific, concrete tasks, such as mowing the lawn or reading a book, can be effective, but probably only in the short-term.
That does not mean that short-term extrinsic motivation cannot lead to long-term changes in behavior. If the motivation sustains a change long enough, the individual may develop new habits that persist beyond the external reward. For example, a student offered a reward for a specific behavior, such as returning an item to its appropriate place of storage after use, may develop the habit of putting the item back after each use. Pink warns, however, that offering the extrinsic motivation long term often leads to resentment as the “motivatee” feels manipulated by the one offering the reward. Short-term, specific, and measurable can make extrinsic motivation work without most negative side-effects.
Intrinsic Motivation: Setting the Stage
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a recipe for igniting intrinsic motivation—”Do X and all your students will be passionate about learning.” Yeah, that would be great. We can dream, but the reality is that intrinsic motivation is impossible to generate for someone else. However, we can create environments where intrinsic motivation is more likely to flourish.
First, create conditions in which students experience competence. Humans like to feel capable of meeting challenges, whether it’s working a formula correctly or running a mile. We like to feel like we can be successful, even when it takes work. How do we create these conditions in our classrooms? One of the most powerful modifications a teacher can make is increasing the amount of instructive feedback given to students while they are working on a task. Formative assessment combined with instructive feedback is the heart of effective teaching. As a teacher moves throughout the classroom observing students at work and offering additional challenge and redirection as necessary, students gain confidence in their abilities to be successful. Why? Because someone is there to point the way. It’s that simple. When we are working to learn something new, having someone who knows how to do what we’re trying to learn and who is willing to offer feedback and guidance kicks our intrinsic motivation into gear.
Second, establish an environment that communicates autonomy. Students like to feel like they have some control over their actions. (Teachers do too, by the way!) If everything in a classroom is so structured that students never have options, intrinsic motivation will wither. The choices can be as simple as either A or B. The point is not to provide students with a myriad of options, but to make sure that giving students choices is a regular part of the classroom. Don’t confuse autonomy with independence. It’s not that students want to be left alone to achieve for themselves but that they want to feel like they have some say in how they learn and demonstrate their learning. In fact, given as an option, many students will choose to work collaboratively with others, recognizing that such interdependence has many potential benefits.
Third, provide appropriate challenge for students. Many times increasing the challenge means doing less as teachers. We have a tendency to think and act as though giving students all the new material nicely organized and tied up is the best way for them to get it. After all, putting it all together worked for us as we interacted with the material. That, right there, is the key: we accepted the challenge of processing the material and gained deeper understanding of it as a result. Students need to go through a similar process—to take on the challenge of sorting the new material.
Research supports this conclusion. A study that has been replicated featured two groups both given the text passage to read. For one group, the text was preceded by an outline that had the same organization as the text. In other words, the researcher, or teacher, communicated that this was the way the ideas should be organized. For the second group, the text was preceded by an outline having a different organization from the text. The researchers then gave two different tests to both groups. The first test was simply to recall the text passage. In other words, it measured superficial learning of the text. In this first test, the group that had received the outline that matched the text had the better scores.
However, when the researchers tested deep learning by testing each group’s ability to use ideas from the text to engage in creative problem-solving, the second group, the group that had been given an outline that differed from the organization of the text passage, significantly outperformed the other group.
Why did the results differ for the two groups? Here’s the researcher’s explanation: “The efforts that participants in the second group made to relate the outline to the text reduced their ability to recall the text but increased their understanding of it. This increased understanding meant that they were better placed than participants in the first group to generalize or transfer their knowledge to the creative problems.” The extra challenge of restructuring the outline to match the text better equipped them to transfer their learning or to act with intention in using the new material.4
Dr. Judy WIllis recently presented valuable insights regarding the brain and challenge. When, as students, our brains are not challenged we become bored easily, and boredom is actually a form of stress. When stressed, the regions of the brain associated with “fight, flight, or freeze” become active, generating behaviors often associated with a variety of disorders, including ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and others. As a neurologist, Dr. Willis began to question the high percentage of children she saw who supposedly had indicators of these disorders. Knowing the numbers seemed far too high, Dr. Willis began to visit classrooms and noticed that, for many students, the questionable behaviors occurred when the child was either unchallenged or feeling incompetent in relation to the challenge.5 Appropriate challenge avoids the extremes that can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
Fourth, help students perceive progress. I love the Nike+ system used with my mp3 player to track my runs. After each run, I can see my progress in relation to personal goals, established standards, previous runs, and much more. I have a visual representation of my progress. Researchers often refer to this as something like the “gamer effect,” gamer being the player of video games. When you play a video game and reach the end of a challenge, you move on to the next level. You always know where you are in relation to the game’s ultimate challenge and conclusion. You can “see” progress.
Would it be possible to help students see their own progress? If we have a series of skills that ultimately enable students to complete some task or reach some answer—could we provide them with a chart that shows the progression? Could they check off “levels” as they master the sub-skills? Think, “How can I represent the learning in a way that students will be able to see progress?”
Finally, help students discover meaning in their learning.
…meaning is motivational. Because the brain constantly strives to make sense of the sensory data our experiences provide, finding meaning triggers the brain’s reward system and increases the likelihood of our retaining the information. “The brain’s determination of what is meaningful and what is not is reflected not only in the initial perceptual processes but also in the conscious processing of information,” claims Patricia Wolfe. “Information that fits into or adds to an existing network has a much better chance of storage than information that doesn’t.”6
Meaning emerges as students blend new learning with past experience (elaboration) and as I see its relevance to their current world (intention). By helping students see the relationship between new learning and their past and present experiences, we can make our instruction conducive to intrinsic motivation.
Remember, there is no magic formula for generating intrinsic motivation or guarantee that even with all these conditions in place that it will flourish. This, however, gives a focus, a place to put our energies so that intrinsic motivation is possible.
In conclusion, let’s consider one more major influence on intrinsic motivation: the teacher’s passion (or lack of it) for the subject matter being taught. We have the responsibility of learning to like everything we teach so that our attitude toward it is consistently upbeat and positive. Many of us likely became teachers because of a dynamic teacher in our past. We need to be that dynamic teacher in our classrooms.
I’d like to pay you $5.00 for reading this entire article, but I wouldn’t want to undermine any intrinsic motivation you may have for implementing its ideas. My continued curiosity about the topic led me to write it—i.e., I didn’t write it for pay! Hopefully it’s generated some ideas worth considering. Applying new learning does have its own rewards!
And who knows? With enough intrinsic motivation you might earn, deserve, and enjoy a post on the all-star team!
- Pink, D.H., Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
- Ripley, A., “Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” Time, April 8, 2010.
- Pink, 62.
- Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M.W., & Anderson, M.C., Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009) 113-135.
- Willis, J., “Teaching Students How They Can Change Their Intelligence by Teaching Them a Brain Owner’s Manual,” presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, 2010).
- Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010) 46-47.