What Motivates Students
By Bruce Kaplan and Bonnie Dorsey-Sanders
Why are our students, especially in the Middle School, not performing as well as we expect them to? Are our expectations too high or is there another reason for inability to learn? This article will attempt to show that the underlying cause for our student’s lack of success in school is due to their lack of motivation in the classroom. If anybody has had the opportunity to observe students in a classroom, they would be amazed at how little learning takes place. This is especially true in the Middle School classroom. (Deci & Ryan, 1985).
Before we begin to determine why students are not motivated in the classroom, we must first define what we mean by MOTIVATION. In terms of student learning, motivation is the student’s willingness to participate in his/her learning. It may be because they have the desire to learn or they feel that they will get something in return.
During this period of their young adolescent development, children are experiencing a drastic change in their physiological, social, and cognitive development. Physiologically, these young adults or adolescents have difficulty sitting still for longer periods of time, and their body is undergoing a reshaping. The most pronounced change is the kicking in of the dreaded "hormones".
Using Piaget's model of cognitive development, people develop skills in stages. These stages are not often clearly defined and may occur at different times in a group of individuals that are the same age. Two of these stages occur during the Middle School period. These two stages are the Concrete and the Formal stage. During the Concrete stage, as the name implies, students think on a non-abstract basis. They understand and learn by actual experience or first hand knowledge. If they can touch it, feel it, or smell it, they can learn it. The second stage, or Formal stage, is where the student develops the ability to learn and formulate abstract ideas. Their cognitive development is such that reason and their deduction abilities increase beyond their immediate little world.
As educators, we must identify where a student’s position is in the developmental cycle to properly educate them. Too often, the traditional mode of teaching is used without any regard for the student's cognitive development. Teachers present abstract concepts to students in the Concrete stage without their ability to grasp those concepts. We present facts to students in the Formal stage and this does not challenge them or promote critical thinking.
Research also indicates there is agreement that five characteristics and needs set the pre adolescent learner apart form other children:
1. The principal characteristic of early adolescent development is unpredictable and highly variable physical change.
2. 2. A period of expansive brain growth occurs between ages 10 -12 and a plateau period is reached between ages 12-14.
3. The influence of parents, teachers, and other adults grows less important, giving way to the persuasive impact of peers.
4. The need to develop values and to accept and like themselves.
5. The need to learn to understand adults and the adult world, and to develop meaningful relationships with adults (Harnet, 1991).
Considerable research has shown a decline in motivation and performance for many children as they move from elementary school into middle school (Eccles & Midgley, 1989). Often it has been assumed that this decline is largely caused by physiology and psychological changes associated with puberty and, therefore, is somewhat inevitable. This assumption has been challenged, however, by research that demonstrates that the nature of motivational change on entry to middle school depends on characteristics of the learning environment in which students find themselves (Midgley, 1993).
The literature on motivation that is relevant to schooling describes students as being oriented towards both a need for success and a need to avoid failure. Depending on the author, this continuum is also represented as having a high vs. low need for achievement, having high or low-test anxiety, or having a mastery vs. ego orientation to learning (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). One principle that underlies these conceptions is that some people will focus more on challenging themselves to achieve by choosing moderately difficult tasks, persisting in the face of setbacks, while others try to avoid situations of moderately difficult tasks where self-esteem would be at risk (Feather, 1974). Those who are risk averse tend to choose either very simple tasks or very hard ones. In the former case they are confident they will succeed, and in the latter case nobody will expect them to succeed. Dweck and Leggett (1988) extended this general rule. They state that people have different personal theories of intelligence. Some believe that intelligence is a stable, fixed trait; while others think that intelligence is malleable. Those who entertain the entity view of intelligence usually have a performance goal orientation as opposed to a learning goal orientation. These are the students who are more focused on making sure that they do not appear foolish to others in the class. Atkinson and Feather (1974) found that people who have a greater orientation towards approaching success tend to have higher levels of academic achievement in a traditional learning environment.
Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is generally considered more durable and self-enhancing (Kohn, 1993). Still, although intrinsic motivation gets much better press, it, too, has its weakness. As Kohn argues, because intrinsic motivation "is a concept that exists only the context of the individual, " the prescriptions its proponents offer teachers, are often too radically individualized, or too bland and abstract, to be applied in classroom settings. On the other hand extrinsic motivation is an external motivator. It is a motivator for the student or the task at hand. It has long been perceived as the bad boy of motivational theory. In “Punished by Rewards”, Alfie Kohn (1995) lays out the prevailing arguments against extrinsic rewards, such as grades and gold stars. He maintains that reliance on factors external to the task and to the individual consistently fails to produce any deep and long lasting commitment to learning. Extrinsic motivation addresses the first stage of the natural waterfall: it gives students goals. Students want to get the prize, so they are willing to play by the rules of the game the teacher sets up. But unfortunately, it fails on the second stage. Students learn to see the knowledge the teacher wishes to convey as a way to win the prize rather than something interesting to know on its own right. Students don't generate questions about it. And once the prize has been achieved, students no longer have any motivation to retain what they have learned.
Research suggests three theories that are currently prominent and that have particular relevance for young adolescent students and their teachers. The first point is the attribution theory. This is the student's perception of their educational experiences that generally influence their motivation more than the actual, objective reality of those experiences. Weiner (1985) points out that students' belief about the reasons for their success will determine whether this assumption is true. Students' attributions for failure are also important influences on motivation. When students have a history of failure in school, it is particularly difficult for them to sustain the motivation to keep trying. In contrast, if students attribute their poor performance to a lack of important skills or to poor study habits, they are more likely to persist in the future.
Another theory is the goal theory. This theory focuses on the reasons or purposes students perceive for achieving (Migley, 1993). There are two main goal orientations that are task goals and ability goals. A task goal orientation represents the belief that the purpose of achieving is personal improvement and understanding. Students with a task goal orientation focus on their own progress in mastering skills and knowledge, and they define success in those ten-ns. An ability goal orientation represents the belief that the purpose of achieving is the demonstration of ability. Students with an ability goal orientation focus on appearing competent, often in comparison to others, and define success accordingly. Studies of students' goal orientations generally find that the adoption of task goals is associated with more adaptive patterns of learning than is the adoption of ability goals, including the use of more effective cognitive strategies, a willingness to seek help when it is needed, a greater tendency to engage in challenging tasks, and more positive feelings about school and oneself as a learner (Ryan & I-Ecks, 1997).
A third motivational theory that is of particular importance is the self-determination theory. This theory describes students as having three categories of needs: needing a sense of competence, of relatedness to others, and of autonomy. Competence involves understanding how to, and believing that one can, achieve various outcomes. Relatedness involves initiating and regulating one's own actions. Most of the research in self-determination theory focuses on the last of these three needs. Within the classroom, autonomy needs could be addressed through allowing some student choice and input on classroom decision-making. For young adolescent students, with their increased cognitive abilities and developing sense of identity, a sense of autonomy may be particularly important. Students at this stage say that they want to be included in decision-making and to have some sense of control over their activities. Unfortunately, research suggests that students in middle school actually experience fewer opportunities for self-determination that they did in elementary school (Midgley & Feldlaufer, 1987).
Through all this research we are posed with four important questions that teachers must ask themselves in order to score the level of engagement in their classrooms.
1. Under what conditions are students most likely to feel that they can be successful?
2. When are students most likely to become curious?
3. How can we help students satisfy their natural drive toward self-expression?
4. How can we motivate students to learn by using their natural desire to create and
foster good peer relationships?
What is it that students want? Research suggests that students want and need work that enables them to demonstrate and improve their sense of themselves as competent and successful human beings. This is the drive toward mastery. Before we can use success to motivate our students to produce high-quality work, we must meet three conditions: (1). We must clearly articulate the criteria for success and provide clear, immediate, and constructive feedback, (2). We must show students that the skills they need to be successful are within their grasp by clearly and systematically modeling these skills, and (3). We must help them see success as a valuable aspect of their personalities. Students want and need work that stimulates their curiosity and awakens their desire for deep understanding. People are naturally curious about a variety of things. Einstein wondered his whole life about the relationships among gravity, space and electromagnetic radiation. Deborah Tannen, the prominent linguistic psychologist, has spent years pondering the obstacles that prevent men and women from conversing meaningfully.
Students want and need work that permits them to express their autonomy and originality, enabling them to discover who they are and who they want to be. Unfortunately, the ways schools traditionally focus on creativity actually thwart the drive toward self-expression. (Ames, 1992) Students want and need work that will enhance their relationships with people they care about. This drive toward interpersonal involvement is pervasive in all our lives. Further, most of us work hardest on those relationships that are reciprocal; what you have to offer is of value to me, and what I have to offer is of some value to you. In general, unbalanced, nonreciprocal relationships prove transient and fail to generate much energy or interest (Strong & Robinson, 1995).
All students, to some extent seek mastery, understanding, self-expression, and positive interpersonal relationships. But they are all different as well. We have read what research says motivates students and also what research says students want and what really motivates them because middle school teachers often teach many students over the course of a school day for a relatively short period of time. This raises the question, how can they impact the students? Given such brief contact with so many, it is easy to underestimate the influence that one's teaching practices can have on any one individual. Current moves to implement the middle school philosophy may provide a more facilitative schedule for both teachers and students, but even in a highly structured middle school, teachers can take specific steps to provide a learning environment that will promote the motivation of all students. (Aderman & Maehr, 1994)
In sum, whether students develop the habit of being motivated to approach appropriately challenging tasks has tremendous ramifications for their future academic achievement and their development of life-long learning habits. One major influence on whether students develop this motivational pattern is their affect towards their classroom environment. This affect is dictated in part by whether the classroom is more competitive than cooperative or visa-versa, a problem that can be solved in a true middle school environment.
METHOD of RESEARCH
In the previous section, we stated some theories of motivation that were found during our literature research. This literature gives the parameters of the authors’ research, and in the following section, we establish how we conducted our study into student motivation.
Participants and Setting
The participants of these two surveys were approximately one hundred fifty seventh grade students that come from middle class families. These surveys were conducted in two suburban Middle Schools in Columbia County Georgia.
Procedures and Method of Data Analysis
We conducted this aspect of the investigation by sitting in the back of the classroom while the teacher conducted his lessons. We observed several different types of lessons such as; presentation of new material, various types of reviews (worksheets and class review), and hands on projects. As we observed these lessons, we took notes.
Presentation of New Material
The teacher stood up at the front of the classroom and asked the students to open their textbooks to the desired page. He then chose a student to read a section aloud. He then called on another student to read a section, and this process was repeated until the next section in the textbook was an example. He had another student work out the example, which in actuality, all the student did was read the steps of the solution in the textbook. This method of instruction did not require any thinking ability, and with the exception of the student reading the textbook, the rest of the class was disengaged and unmotivated.
When worksheets were given out, it was usually done to keep the students busy so the teacher could take care of other business. Invariably the first two questions asked were, is this going to be collected and graded? and if we do not finish it in class, will it be homework? The students were told to work on the worksheet by themselves, and most of the time they appeared to be bored. A large percentage of the students just went through the motions of doing the problems and occasionally, the teacher allowed small group work. The students seemed more interested when they worked in groups.
Review Worksheets (Class - Overhead Projector)
Here the worksheet was copied onto a transparency and displayed on a screen with an overhead projector. Once again, one student was chosen to read the problem and then solve it. As the student solved the problem, the teacher wrote it on the transparency so the whole class could see it. As in the case of the presentation of new material, the student who was reading and solving the problem was participating in learning, while the rest of the class was disengaged, often to the point of putting their heads down on their desks and sleeping.
Hands on Projects and Group Work
What a difference! All the students were participating in their learning and enjoying themselves. When the students were able to work in groups, there was cooperation between the students. This was true when they worked on review sheets or on their projects. Some of these projects consisted of constructing a tessellation pattern, or a polyhedron out of cardstock in a Mathematics class and a community presentation of several countries in a Social Studies class.
On my last day of lab, I passed out three by five index cards and asked the students if they could help me become a better Mathematics teacher and increase their desire to learn Mathematics. Since part of my lab experience was to teach three Mathematics lessons, I include my reactions to the students that I observed while I taught my lessons. All they had to do was to write some suggestions, note, or comment on things they would like to see a Mathematics do in their class. Of course I had to set some limits such as no pizza parties and that they will have homework.
A survey was given to 50 middle school students on what motivates them to learn.
RESULTS of RESEARCHINVETIGATION ONE RESULTS
We received responses from ninety students and several of them listed more than one comment. After all the observations, we collated my notes and tried to break them down into specific categories. A lot of times, this could not be done in a simple, clear-cut manner, since there was a lot of gray area between the categories. For example, if a student listed a comment as FUN, I had to try to determine what he meant by fun and put it in an appropriate category. Also, with my observation of the class, I was not concerned with specific numbers of behaviors, but rather the different behaviors we observed. We were also not concentrating on their Mathematical abilities, and as such, we did not deem it necessary to include samples of the student work, but we did include samples of the index cards that contain their responses to our survey.
DISCUSSION of SURVEY ONE RESULTS
It does not take a rocket scientist (I know because I got my degree in rocket science) to realize that most of the students in Middle School are disengaged from learning. They look at content area instruction as something closer to being in jail than something from which they can get satisfaction. In almost three quarters of the index cards we read from the students, the four most common responses were the following:
1. Less bookwork and lectures. The teacher should find ways to go into greater detail.
2. More group work and hands on activities.
3. Find out what the students think and try to incorporate their ideas in the lessons.
4. MAKE LEARNING FUN.
INVESTIGATION TWO RESULTS
Ninety percent of the students said getting good grades, visual learning, group work, energetic and likable teachers, rewards, caring teachers, exciting lessons and less bookwork were important to them. Fifty percent said being challenged was important for motivating them and twenty percent said competition was motivating to them. The results from this survey support the findings in the research. Students are not motivated through competition and they want fun and excitement incorporated in their learning experience. A survey was also given to middle school teachers who worked with the same team as the students who were surveyed about student motivation.
DISCUSSION of SURVEY TWO RESULTS
The teachers all agreed that the students still need extrinsic motivation whether it is grades or candy of some sort. Students enjoy working in groups. These teachers say they try to use group or cooperative learning as much as possible. The teachers all agreed that students become curious about learning when the teacher is showing excitement and enthusiasm in the instructions or when the students are interested in what is being taught. In a nutshell students should be taught while incorporating motivational factors conducive to the age group.
SIGNIFICANCE of the STUDY
This study reaffirmed previous research that students are motivated to learn when they take an active part of their learning. From what was observed in the classroom, the traditional mode of classroom instruction, where the teacher teaches directly out of the textbook, does not work. This is also true for review where only one student is active, either reading or solving a problem, and the rest of the class is passive. This was very evident in the responses received from the student surveys. They are bored and combined with the physiological changes they are undergoing, they are having a hard time sitting still and paying attention. They are disengaged and do not feel that they are part of the classroom exercise, they are unmotivated to learn.
LIMITATIONS of the STUDY
This study was conducted in two suburban middle schools in Georgia. The majority of these students come from an upper middle class background in a family environment that consists of two educated parents. These two middle schools enjoy a high degree of parental involvement and support. The observations were conducted in one of the Middle School classrooms and the survey was conducted in the other Middle School. It was a small, unscientific sampling of the student population.
SUGGESTIONS for FURTHER RESEARCH
The research obtained for this article showed that students in today’s classrooms are not motivated, and as a result do not learn to their potential. A topic for further research is how the use of technology in the classroom can be used to motivate students. Another topic for research is how the administration in the Middle School affects student motivation and learning.
For this investigation, observations of the teachers and the students were completed during several different classroom instructional strategies. These included; presentation of new material, individual student worksheets, class-wide review worksheets (overhead projector), and hands on projects. Along with these observations, surveys were conducted of the students to find out what they wanted to see in a classroom. Also, included are several lessons that were taught to contribute to the analysis to determine if a different instruction method had a positive effect on student motivation.
If we as educators want our students to be motivated about learning we must take into account the basic needs of our students. There is no better model for this than William Glasser's list of five basic needs that must be addressed which are the following: survival, belonging, power, freedom, and fun. This was evident through the classroom observations and the student responses (Glasser 1986).
1. More group work, this keeps more students engaged in learning.
2. Keep the instruction student centered, which will encourage the student to take responsibility for his learning.
3. Give the student some power that affects his learning. If students have some input, they will be more apt to follow the rules and learn.
4. Make learning fun. This is probably the most important. We as human beings enjoy doing things from which we derive pleasure. Therefore we must as educators make our instruction fun and meaningful so the students will want to learn.
Aderman, E.M., Maehr, M.L. (1994). Motivation & Schooling in the Middle Grades.
Review of Education Research, 64(2), 287-308, EJ 853
Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, Structures, and Student Motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84 (3), 261 – 271, EJ 452
Atkinson, J. W. & Feather, N. T. (1974). A Theory of achievement Motivation.
Huntington, NY: R.E. Krieger Pub. Co
Deci, E,C., Vallerand, R.V.., Pelletier, L. G. (1991). Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective. Educational Psychology, 26 (314), 325, 346..
Dweck, C.S. & Leggett, E.L. (1988). A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and
Personality. Psychological Review, 95 (2), 256-273
Eccles, J.S., & Midgley, C. (1989). Stage environment Fit: Developmentally Appropriate Classrooms for Early Adolescents. In R.E. Ames & C. Ames (Eds), Research On Motivation in Education (vol. 3, pp. 139-186). NY: Academic
Harnett, Anne M. (1991). Preparation of Middle School Teachers. Eric Digest 90-1
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive
Plan. A's Praise and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Glasser, William. (1986). Control Theory in the Classroom. New York, New York: Perennial Library
Midgley, C., & Feldlaufer, H. (1987). Students'and Teachers'Decision-Making Fit Before and After the Transition to Junior High School. Journal of Early Adolescence, 7(2), 225-241.
Midgley, C., & Urdan, T.C. (1992). The Transition to Middle Level Schools: MakingitaGoodExperienceforAllStudents. Middle School Journal, 24(2), 5-14. EJ 454 359.
Robinson, Amy & Strong, Richard. (1995). "What do Students want (and what really
Motivates them)? Educational Leadership, Princeton: NJ
Ryan, A.M., I-Ecks, L. (1997). Social Goals, Academic Goals, and Avoiding
Seeking Help in the Classroom. Journal of Early Adolescence, 17(2), 152-17 1.
Weiner, B. (1985). An Attribution Theory of achievement Motivation and Emotion Psychological Review, 92(2), 548-573, EJ 324 684.