As a nation, we’ve focused on increasing student achievement for more than a decade. Rigorous standards, a great curriculum, and well-trained teachers and principals are all necessary ingredients in any recipe for school reform, and they are helping to improve achievement in many schools. But even when these elements are part of the school reform recipe, a crucial ingredient is often missing: an understanding of how to motivate students who are disengaged from school.
What can educators, parents, and communities do to add the yeast of student motivation to their efforts to raise achievement? In a new report by the Center on Education Policy (CEP), we reviewed an array of studies to distill the factors that contribute to student motivation, as well as policies and practices that can help encourage motivation—or cause it to fall flat.
Three examples illustrate how schools, teachers, and parents can encourage or discourage student motivation.
1. Cash Rewards
Some schools have tried to motivate students by giving them cash or other rewards for earning good grades, doing well on tests, or completing assignments. This might seem like a direct and uncomplicated way to provide students with a reason to work hard. But the results of these programs are mixed, and some approaches are more promising than others.
For instance, rewarding students for mastering a specific task or skill, such as reading a book or solving a problem, works better than rewarding them for reaching a particular level of performance, such as achieving a passing score on a test. In general, research shows that to motivate students academically, the reward itself is of lesser importance – as long as it’s something of general interest – than the behavior that is being rewarded.
Rewarding actions that students can control, such as completing homework, yields better results than rewarding accomplishments that may seem beyond students’ reach or out of their control, such as whether they earn an “A” grade. And rewarding students for activities they inherently enjoy can actually decrease their intrinsic motivation by conditioning them to expect some type of external reward.
2. Teachers’ Role
Teachers obviously play an important role in fostering student motivation, but the best ways to do this can be surprising. For example, a study by Stanford University professor Deborah Stipek and colleagues suggests that students are more likely to become engaged when their teachers emphasize mastery, such as learning a new skill or concept, rather than performance, such as besting their friend’s score on a test. Other studies indicate that teachers can increase motivation by setting high expectations, allowing students some choice in what they study or in classroom activities, and using lessons that involve higher-order thinking, collaboration, and student participation, among other strategies. And according to research by Patricia Hardré and David Sullivan at the University of Oklahoma, teachers who encourage autonomy in their classrooms are more effective motivators than teachers who emphasize control.
3. Parents’ Expectations
Parents’ beliefs and expectations can encourage – or discourage – their children’s motivation. For example, parents who hold high expectations for their children’s learning, believe in their children’s ability, and promote curiosity, persistence, and problem-solving can help their children develop an inner motivation to learn. But when parents praise children’s intelligence instead of praising them for mastering new knowledge and skills, they can send a message that intelligence is static. As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has noted, this mindset can lead children to avoid challenges or fear failure. Likewise, punishing children for doing poorly in school can also discourage some children from developing an inner sense of motivation.
Creating a home environment that fosters children’s motivation takes effort from any parent, but it can be especially problematic for parents who lack resources or education and have other social stresses. This doesn’t mean we should blame parents for gaps in skill development. Schools and communities can establish well-designed programs to help parents instill motivation and encourage learning in their children from an early age. And public and private institutions can provide a variety of social services to reduce disparities in resources and opportunities that contribute to gaps in motivation and achievement.
In short, motivating disengaged students is a crucial ingredient to raising achievement, but like yeast, motivation needs to be cultivated. While there is no single recipe for fostering motivation, many additional suggestions, as well as sources for the findings cited above, can be found in the CEP summary report and six accompanying background papers on student motivation, available at cep-dc.org.
Alexandra Usher is a senior research assistant at the Center on Education Policy at The George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Nancy Kober is a consultant to the Center. They co-authored the report, “Student Motivation—An Overlooked Piece of School Reform.”
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.