Student Motivation (part 1)

Student motivation is perhaps one of the most interesting topics in education as it has blurry intersections with psychology, cognition theories, and learning theories. Whether one chooses to ignore it or not, motivation is critical for effective learning – especially in a setting (school) where students are expected to learn.

What prompted me to reread Educational Psychology by Kelvin Seifert is the ambiguous nature of motivation. I often found that the hidden curriculum (i.e. the social structures of the classroom, the teacher’s authority and use of language, disciplinary measures, timetables etc.) as well as other psychological aspects of our profession can have a greater impact than we assume. Also, I chose to blog about it as I keep reading about student “interests” on Twitter and it seems to me that many teachers who support this view do not fully understand the complexities of motivation. 

I am certain that all educators are aware (even empirically so) of the different types of motivation that students can display. However, I think an overview of the six major theories helps us identify our own errors, beliefs, or misconceptions regarding motivation. Shortly these theories are:

(1) motives as behavior change

(2) motives as goals

(3) motives as interests

(4) motives as attributions about success

(5) motives as beliefs about self-efficacy

(6) motives as self-determination.

1. The first approach is based on behaviorism theory. What a student does, says or asks is the first obvious sign that a teacher can notice. Seifert, however, rightfully warns:

A student might pose questions in class and thus appear engaged in understanding the material. One might even exclaim, “Oh, a true inquirer!” That is not always the case. The student might want social validation, that is, to look “bright” and curious to either the teacher or his peers.“But the multiple demands of teaching can limit the time needed to determine what the behaviors mean.” (p.108)

Seifert identifies more problems in understanding student behavior (and motivation) other than the extremely busy agenda of the teacher. Another obstacle could be language skills (and here second language learners are a special category) or cultural differences (the student belongs to a community that uses patterns of communication unfamiliar to the teacher).

2. Motivation can be viewed as goals (academic or social) that the student has. Here we can talk about three types of goals:

mastery goals (the student finds the material interesting and learns it to become better)

performance goals (the student is concerned with getting top marks so as to look successful in the eyes of the teacher, peers etc.)

failure-avoidance goals (the student is not interested in the material itself, but in avoiding failure)

Obviously, the ideal situation is that all students focus on mastery goals as they are not only associated with enjoyment and are a form of intrinsic motivation, but also because it helps students to focus on learning for the sake of learning. With so many subjects, however, it is a very unlikely situation for all students to enjoy all topics they are required to learn day after day. The last type of goals that “motivate” students usually occurs in class settings where the teacher emphasizes competition and being “the best” in class. Seifert cautions that

” Some students may decide that success is beyond their reach (…) The alternative—simply avoiding failure—may seem wiser as well as more feasible. Once a student adopts this attitude, he or she may underachieve more or less deliberately, doing only the minimum work necessary to avoid looking foolish or to avoid serious conflict with the teacher.”

3. Students’ interests can be situational or personal.
Situational interests are temporary and are triggered by features of the immediate environment (i.e. the teacher uses an interesting video as an introduction to a topic).

Personal interests are relatively permanent preferences of the student, and are usually expressed in a variety of situations (i.e. the student shows consistent interest in science fiction books).

What is interesting to notice is that there is an obscure relationship between interests and academic achievement:

“It is often not clear whether personal interest leads to higher achievement, or higher achievement leads to stronger interest. Either possibility seems plausible.” 

Seifert also advocates for a very careful choice of strategies to spark students’ interest in the material:

“Even though it is important to stimulate interest in new material somehow, it is also possible to mislead or distract students accidentally by adding stimulating , but inappropriate features to new material (Garner, et al.,1992; Harp & Mayer, 1998).”

Here he enumerates several ways through which teachers, despite their best intentions, might actually hinder student learning: deliberately telling jokes that are not related to the material, using extremely stimulating resources such as very colorful pictures, adding orally more information than needed etc. These may not only prevent student from focusing on the material but might even create misconceptions.

* Student Motivation – Part 2 is here (the other 3 theories explored)


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