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How to Motivate Students: Designing Effective Instruction

Aaron Daffern

If a teacher uses an instructional strategy during several different class periods throughout the day, why do the results sometimes differ? How can the same teacher deliver the same quality lesson and get such varied responses? Most would answer that the effect of the instructional strategy depends not only on the teacher but on the students. Teaching and learning how to motivate students is not a one-sided affair. It is the partnership between instructor and pupil that mediates the effectiveness of various teaching techniques. When students are engaged in class, learning and achievement rises. Unmotivated students can drown a quality lesson in a sea of apathy. While these statements are regarded as general knowledge among teachers, too often strategies are chosen based on incomplete information about how to motivate students. Teachers typically have access to reams of data about students’ present levels of performance. Educators know where the knowledge deficits are and what skills are needed to plug the gaps. But some instruction fails because, as teachers, we daily operate on one enormous assumption: Students want to learn.

For the most part, children will comply with teacher requests. They’ll engage in discussions, complete homework, and think critically when asked. Yet sometimes, students show no interest in learning. For whatever reason, their motivation is so low that they cannot or will not engage in basic classroom instruction. This lack of participation and willingness can sometimes be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful lesson. Engagement, then is the second piece to the puzzle discussed in the opening questions. The teacher might use identical teaching strategies period after period but results hinge upon the level of student engagement.

But how can teachers consistently and effectively engage students?

It is this question that holds the power of success or failure in so many classrooms. Instruction is only as effective as the degree of student engagement during the lesson. Teaching effectiveness is measured by student mastery, not covering the required material. To maximize the precious time that teachers have with students, a basic understanding of student motivation would go a long way toward improving engagement and achievement. Engagement happens when solid teaching meets motivated students. Instead of planning a lesson and hoping the students like it, teachers should purposefully design instruction to motivate every student.

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A hodge-podge of motivational theories spread over three decades of social-cognitive research try to corner the market on student motivation. Some ideas hold commonalities, others are almost antithetical, and still others use different terms to describe very similar concepts. Careful examination, however, of theories, studies, and clinical results, however, begin to form a pattern. Five facets of motivation emerge from the scholarly chaos. These components of student motivation spell the acronym CRAVE. As educators, our hope is that students will crave learning and become intrinsically motivated to engage in the classroom. By utilizing CRAVE during lesson construction, teachers can do just that.

How to Motivate Students: Competence

The first area of CRAVE that teachers should be aware of is competence. Students who feel as if they can accomplish a task (self-efficacy) are much more likely to engage in learning situations. Students who believe they have the competence to achieve their learning goals have increased motivation and persistence.

Imagine if you were given the task of entering and completing a marathon. If you were a recreational runner that occasionally ran 5Ks, it would be a daunting but possible endeavor. If, on the other hand, you became winded walking up a flight of stairs and hadn’t ran a mile since middle school gym class, the final goal of finishing a marathon would seem hopeless. How you evaluated your ability to complete the task would have a large part in determining how much effort you put into the required training. For some learners, school is a series of endless marathons that seem impossible.

Competence is a strong motivational factor for students (Bandura, 1993; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991; Pekrun, 2006; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). When they feel able to learn and achieve, their motivation and engagement rises. For teachers that notice that their students are disengaging because of a lack of competence, the solution is not to lower the standards. Instead, teachers can maintain high expectations if they place various levels of support along the learning journey, provide ample feedback, and allow students the chance to revise their work toward well-defined learning goals.

Relationships

When asked what motivates students to learn, few teachers will reach for a ready-made educational theory or social cognitive research. Instead, experience will tell them that students are highly encouraged by positive teacher relationships. The anecdotal evidence for the power of relationships is staggering. That does not mean, however, that this facet of motivation is unsupported by research (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991).

As social creatures, students instinctively evaluate their surroundings and the people in their lives to see where they fit in. Are they accepted and honored or shunned and ostracized? Sometimes this relational aspect, which strongly affects emotions, encourages or discourage students from engaging in learning activities. When classrooms move from knowledge dispensaries to true communities of learning, motivation dramatically increases.

More than just teacher-student relationships, however, impact student motivation. Student-student relationships and the overall environment and culture of a classroom also play a part. How classmates view one another’s academic abilities, known as a peer academic reputation (Hughes & Zhang, 2007), also affects motivation. When peers view a student as less than able academically, that not only affects the student’s competence beliefs but also their perceived likeability. Relational strains can cause many students to disengage from learning activities.

Autonomy

The third facet that impacts student motivation is autonomy. The amount of control students feel they have over their lives and their learning can powerfully shape their desire to engage (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991; Dickinson, 1995; Pekrun, 2006; Weiner, 1985). Something as simple as giving students a voice and a choice can drastically change the level of classroom motivation.

While this aspect of human nature has always existed, our current society tends to highlight the need for autonomy. With the explosion of social media and the Internet, students at a younger and younger age are given access to a worldwide audience. They have the ability to comment, discuss, argue, and stand for a wide variety of topics that previously had been largely relegated to more mature circles. To move from the freedom of tweeting opinions and starting SubReddit threads to the strict confines of textbook-driven education can be maddening to some students.

This does not mean, however, that classrooms should turn into educational buffets to lure students into learning. While schools and districts cannot easily escape state-mandated standards, they have a wide latitude in how mastery of those topics are demonstrated. Does every student need to fill out the same worksheet, or can they choose from a menu of reporting formats? Does every assignment need to be completed in the same order, or can students choose which task to work on first? Is everything mandatory or can activities be classified into required and optional?

Value

Along with relationships, value is the most widely accepted motivational facet without the need for documentation. When learning is relevant, students are more engaged. They subconsciously evaluate instructional tasks with a view toward importance. If students perceive that what they are asked to do has value, their interest soars (Elliott, 1999; Pekrun, 2006; Pekrun, Elliot, & Maier, 2009; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000).

In addition to perceived relevance or value of the learning task, students also engage in instruction based on their learning goals. Some students participate because they want to learn for its own sake, called mastery goal orientation. Others are more focused on achieving a certain goal, called performance goal orientation. If the task has value in helping them reach their learning goal, then it positively affects motivation. The value students place on learning and instructional tasks affects motivation. When learning is seen as relevant and related to personal learning goals, engagement improves.

Value is the driving force behind such educational initiatives as problem-based learning. Rather than sticking with dry and dusty academic facts, teachers would do well to incorporate the real world as much as possible. Though reality is often messy and precludes a single correct answer, it often is extremely interesting. Rather than avoiding cultural trends, embrace them. Build problems around popular video games such as Overwatch and Fortnite and watch the engagement explode.

Emotions

While the first four facets have a solid basis psychological and educational research, the fifth facet, emotions, transcends those venues. Emotions have long been studied as an essential part of motivation, either as a cause or result of academic engagement (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990). Student emotional states, caused by internal and external factors, can enhance or wreak havoc on learning (Pekrun, Elliot, & Maier, 2009). The impact of negative emotions has been long explored by researchers. Negative emotions, such as boredom, anxiety, anger, or hopelessness, encourage more surface-level processing of material (D'Mello & Graesser, 2012). Instead of using complex thinking strategies, students experiencing contrary emotions tend to rely on techniques such as rote memorization and basic recall. Overall, negative emotions can lead to lower student achievement (Pekrun, Goetz, & Perry, 2002).

Neuroscience has further explored the impact of emotions (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). Using modern technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have begun to explore the effect of emotions on cognition and learning. Rather than playing a separate role, emotions are key to thinking. Instead of separating emotions from rational thought, emotions are interwoven into everything students do. There is no thinking without emotions.

Emotions should not be ignored or minimized but embraced. When teachers create emotional anchors for their learning, recall and comprehension are enhanced. By encoding information with a multitude of neural pathways, connections are strengthened and learning is increased. Enjoyable classes increase achievement.

CRAVE

So what does understanding the five facets of motivation do for educators? First and foremost, knowledge is power. Trial and error might be a valid strategy for some scientific experiments but it is wasteful in the classroom. Teachers, if aware of the motivational needs of all students, can design their instruction in such a way as to harness student motivation. Engaging lessons, which in turn create positive learning environments and increase learning and achievement, depend on two variables: Instructional design and student motivation.

Learning should be done by the student rather than to the student. For teachers to successfully leverage student motivation to increase engagement, they must know how and why students are motivated to learn. Lessons designed solely on state standards but ignorant of student needs operate on the assumption that students are motivated to learn. While for the most part students will participate in instruction because they desire to do so, there are always a few that disengage quickly if not properly motivated.

Some students actively learn because they enjoy increasing their competence. They enjoy the feeling of getting answers correct and succeeding in learning tasks. Others engage because of a positive relationship with the teacher, friends in the class, or both. For some, a feeling of autonomy in their learning, of having a voice and choice, encourages them to participate. Real-world value, whether it be the learning itself or as a means to a larger goal, spurs other students to take part in learning. Finally, emotions regulate all of these other facets. When the classroom is fun and/or interesting, motivation improves.

Student engagement should not be subject to gimmicks and anecdotal solutions. Instead, teachers can take a rational and reasoned approach to ensuring that all students fully participate in classroom instruction. By understanding, anticipating, and planning for varied motivational needs, teachers can design instruction that engages all learners.

References

Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28(2), 117-148.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3-4), 325-246.

Dickinson, L. (1995). Autonomy and motivation: A literature review. System, 23(2), 165-174.

D'Mello, S., & Graesser, A. (2012). Dynamics of affective states during complex learning. Learning and Instruction, 22(2), 145-157.

Elliott, A. J. (1999). Approach and avoidance motivation and achievement goals. Educational Psychologist, 34(3), 169-189.

Hughes, J. N., & Zhang, D. (2007). Effect of the structure of classmates' perceptions of peers' academic abilities on children's perceived cognitive competence, peer acceptance, and engagement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 400-419.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3-10.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18(4), 315-341.

Pekrun, R., Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2009). Achievement goals and achievement emotions: Testing a model of their joint relations with academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(1), 115.

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T. T., & Perry, R. P. (2002). Academic emotions in students' self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research. Educational Psychologist, 37(2), 91-105.

Pintrich, P. R., & De Groot, E. V. (1990). Motivational and self-regulated learning components of classroom academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), 33.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and motivation. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68-81.