Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Removing Obstacles to Student Motivation

It’s a comment we hear all too frequently: “These students are not motivated.”  As we have come under more stress to teach new curriculum standards, to increase rigor, and to be evaluated under a new, more specific system, these kinds of comments have increased.  Perhaps it’s the pressure of performance and the fear of failure that seeps into our minds and manifests a negative mindset.
We are quick to blame students for not studying, not completing homework, not paying attention carefully, not caring, and to blame parents for not being involved.
In reality, we cannot change another person, much less an entire classroom of students.  We have control only over ourselves.  So when frustration sets in, we must turn inward and take a careful look at ourselves. This kind of self-reflection is difficult, but necessary, if we are to become truly effective educators.  We educators must acknowledge that our attitudes and behaviors “can affect student motivation in ways that either facilitate or impede learning” (Svinicki).
What am I doing that negatively affects my students?  What tone have I unintentionally set in my classroom?  What is my non-verbal communication saying to my students? What am I verbalizing to my students?  Am I practicing what I am preaching?
What classroom policies have I implemented that may have unintended consequences? What assignments am I giving? Do these assignments have meaning and value for students? Are my instruction and assessment truly aligned to what students need to learn?
            Learning is risky.  Mistakes are inevitable. How we handle those mistakes is critical to creating a classroom environment that motivates students.  We can choose to react to student errors with interest and support, embracing mistakes as part of the learning process, providing opportunities to learn from errors and to progress toward mastery, helping students to see their learning growth, or we can choose to react with criticism and condescension, citing students’ failures, and noting the finality of low grades.
            If we take the latter path, whether by conscious choice or by default, our students eventually lose their motivation to learn.  Grades are motivational for only a few achievement-oriented students, yet in frustration we often threaten and punish students by assigning low grades, thinking that they should be motivated to earn higher grades. 
            Some students avoid the stigma of failure by doing only that with which they know they can be successful, leaving the rest unfinished.  Others avoid work that they find meaningless.  Adopting a supportive approach to students who fear failure and reexamining the assignments we give to ensure their value are ways we can better reach these students.
People are motivated to engage in behaviors that have value to them and where they have a reasonable expectation for success.  How does this apply to our students?
As teachers, it is our responsibility to select learning tasks that have value for students; sometimes, we must help them see that value.  We must eliminate meaningless tasks.  We also must structure the learning situation so that success is likely.  As students work on tasks, we must encourage and support their efforts.
            Typically, our students want to do well; they want to please their teachers. When you find this is not true in your classroom, dig deeper.  I doubt you are seeing a lazy student.  Many deeper issues manifest themselves in the school setting as laziness and lack of motivation.  There’s something that is creating an obstacle that is too large for the student to overcome alone. 
An honest reflection may well reveal that at least one obstacle lies within the teacher’s control. What will you do to help uncover and remove these obstacles so students can learn in your classroom?

Svinicki, M.D. (2005).  Student Goal Orientation, Motivation and Learning.  Retrieved from http://ideaedu.org/sites/default/files/Idea_Paper_41.pdf

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