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What motivates students to learn and succeed at school?

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What motivates kids to do well in school and other areas of their lives? Not praise or rewards, it turns out. Gifts, incentives and the constant affirmation of "you're great!" can actually kill the desire to accomplish great things.


Music Program at West Island College

In schools like the West Island College in Calgary (above), students can take music courses to enhance their learning. Research shows that grades are not motivators; in fact, they can kill the desire to learn. PHOTO BY CHRIS BOLIN/OUR KIDS MEDIA

The literature on motivation offers some interesting insights into human behaviour. Psychologists, social scientists and educators have studied the role that incentives (sometimes called rewards) and disincentives (sometimes called punishments) play in the lives of children, students and employees.

Ideally, people work on the most important and meaningful tasks in their lives driven from an internal desire—what is called intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to accomplish a task for the sake of curiosity, interest, pursuing mastery, developing skills, expanding experience, gaining knowledge, and so on.

Extrinsic motivation is the opposite: a person works on a task primarily in order to gain an external reward or avoid a punishment. The focus of the mind under these conditions is not on mastering the task itself but on seeing the task as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Classic extrinsic motivators are pay incentives (bonuses) to encourage greater productivity, grades on school work, honour rolls, academic awards, and praise from teachers or superiors after specific performance results.

Learning becomes a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, when a student is more focused on the external element that the learning moves toward— reward or punishment, high grade or low grade, praise or criticism—than on the sensation of mastery that comes from gaining knowledge and developing skills. Research conducted with students of all ages reveals that performance goals undermine intrinsic interest. In other words, focusing on a grade, a test score, or a reward eats away at a student's engagement in the actual learning itself. Despite what many people think, grades are not motivators; in fact, they can kill the desire to learn. In a performance-oriented culture, where grades and test scores are of paramount importance, students can lose a genuine interest in the learning tasks.

Key Factors in Student Motivation

Teachers intuitively know this when they say "but students won't work without grades!" That is precisely the point that researchers are making: once rewards (grades) have been regularly used to influence behaviour, and once learning has become a means-to-an-end activity, many students work only for the rewards (or to avoid the punishments). They become distant from and disinterested in pursuing knowledge and developing skills.

Extrinsic motivators—money, grades and praise —produce short-term effects. Students will study for the test, but mostly the night before, often without much interest in the material itself,— and often using their rote memory. Teachers have all experienced the frustration of working with children who seem to know the material one day and cannot recall it a week later. It is nearly impossible to build deep and genuine learning when students are relying on short-term memory to perform tasks that have an external value to them—a good grade.

Studies tell us that choice is a key factor in motivation. Choice that allows us to exercise control over the type of tasks we engage in as well as the way in which we complete them supports a sense of autonomy. And a sense of autonomy leads to greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.

Choice is the key to self-determination and authenticity. To live and to learn without choice is to feel controlled and to develop instrumental thinking—to work for the reward.

Teachers can foster internal motivation by engaging students with interesting learning materials and environments, constructing learning tasks that promote active involvement, de-emphasizing grades and other extrinsic controls, and supporting autonomy through offering real and meaningful choices both in task and in execution.

The research on motivation is complex and fascinating, and the bottom line is this: Kids are more internally motivated to learn when rewards and punishments are kept at a distance. We don't want kids "doing school"—going through the motions while focused on praise and grades—because it turns out that they don't retain their learning with this mindset. The learning is superficial and more about external affirmation than about deep understanding.

—Karen Sumner
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