Research School Network: How do we Solve the Problem of Motivation? Part Two: Translating the Research into Practice Daisy Holland-Selby on the solutions to tackling pupil motivation

How do we Solve the Problem of Motivation? Part Two: Translating the Research into Practice

Daisy Holland-Selby on the solutions to tackling pupil motivation

In my first blog on Motivation, I argued the question of what encourages or hinders human motivation.

In summary:

  • I discussed how the myths we hold about human motivation affect our approaches to teaching and can become toxic. Certainly, if the assumptions we hold regarding a student’s lack of motivation place the onus on them: they are not trying hard enough; they are lazy; they have low aspirations or they are not interested in my subject.
  • I looked at how psychological theories can challenge our thinking regarding motivation, exploring the following: Self-efficacy; Expectancy value theory; Self Determination Theory.

Translating the Research into Practice

Summations regarding the causes for amotivation has in the past led to calls for curriculum change, that has a focus on more relevant’ and relatable’ content. Instead of teaching Shakespeare, why not someone more contemporary that will surely provide a more engaging experience for the students? However, not only is engagement a poor proxy for learning, every teacher knows there will always be that one student who will sit with determined apathy in the lesson no matter what, go through the motions, but rarely show the spirit of the enthusiastic lifelong learner we went into teaching to nurture. More importantly, we must also consider that this criticism is quite often misplaced and repeatedly these misconceptions stem from a lack of knowledge regarding the social psychology that underpins motivation, but also the cognitive psychology of how students learn.

I have certainly found after exploring some of the social psychological theories of motivation, that my views on the nature and cause of students’ amotivation have started to shift. For example, when I reflect on some of the methods I have used to motivate students in the past, I worry that I may have inadvertently been hindering them because of the misconceptions that I have held about how best to achieve the desired attitudes to learning.

A prime example is how I have used extrinsic rewards in the past. Being an English teacher in schools that serve communities with significant gaps in their literacy has meant that I have attempted to find many inventive ways to motivate students to engage in the learning of complex texts. I recall in my NQT year, when teaching a GCSE unit on War Poetry to a particularly unruly cohort, rewarding’ them with 10 minutes of watching Band of Brothers at the end of every lesson if they did their work. While I thought I was providing them with an experience that would make them enjoy the subject more, according to Willingham (2008) I was making a serious reward’ faux pas: My reward was not for a specific task, but just for completing a lesson in English, therefore potentially giving the students the message that English is boring and that they need to be given rewards to learn it. Furthermore, Self Determination Theory suggests that offering tangible rewards’ can potentially undermine the sense of autonomy’ an individual experiences (Cook & Artino, 2016) particularly if these are perceived as contingent or controlling. This might suggest that offering video treats as a reward could have had a negative influence on the motivation of some of my pupils for example, if they perceived the rewards as controlling’ (‘do this work and you can watch the video’) this might undermine their perceived autonomy.

How Can Praise Support and Undermine?

As I matured as a teacher and developed my behaviour management toolkit, I am pleased to say that I no longer needed to be assisted by the Band of Brothers. Rather, I focused on how I could use positive framing and praise to motivate my students. Again, here is another area of my practice that I have begun to reflect on considering Willingham’s (2008) evaluation of some of the research on the positive and negative effects of praise. It almost seems ridiculous to propose that praise can be demotivating, but according to Willingham (2008), it can sometimes be the case. He argues that the difference lies in the specifics of the praise given to the student:

When faced with a difficult task, a child who has been praised in the past for her effort is likely to believe that intelligence increases as knowledge increases and, therefore, will work harder and seek more experiences from which she can learn. In contrast, a student who has been praised for her ability will likely believe that intelligence is fixed (e.g., is genetically determined) and will seek to maintain the "intelligent" label by trying to look good, even if that means sticking to easy tasks rather than more challenging tasks from which more can be learned.

When considering the possible changes I could make to improve motivation, one option would be to change the language I use when giving praise. Dweck (2006) emphasises the importance of praising the process rather than the student, suggesting that giving more specific praise or verbal feedback related to effort may have a positive impact on students’ motivation.

Improving Self Concept and Nurturing Autonomy: Making Success Visible Through Goal Setting

One potential strategy that can be used to improve student’s self-concept and nurture autonomy is by narrating the successful process by giving students specific models to emulate and refer to. As I stated in Part 1:

For the many students who enter secondary school with low literacy levels, tackling the most basic of writing task can seem like a huge hurdle. It is no surprise then, that many students’ perceptions, based on their past successes or lack thereof, lead them to think that they are not competent enough to be successful. This repeated failure can also undermine their understanding of the reasons for completing the tasks, meaning that the students risk never gaining the autonomy that we often associate with motivation”

As frustrating as this lack of engagement can be for the teacher, it is in fact a perfectly rational response; we wouldn’t spend an hour on a job or task if we knew that the outcome would provide nothing but failure so why would a student invest time in a piece of work if there was no perceived gain from the outcome? Therefore, one of the major challenges for teachers is motivating students to engage in learning that many students associate with failure. Making success visible and challenging students’ perceptions of themselves in an attempt to improve their self-efficacy and provide them with the basic psychosocial needs that would increase their relatedness, competence, and autonomy in one way we might approach tackling the problem.

Fletcher-Wood (2018), argues that students who are exposed to models have a visual goal – they know what success looks like and thus have the foundations to build up to it. However, for goals to be effective, students need to be able to accurately assess if they are meeting them, otherwise it can be difficult or impossible for them to adjust the level or direction of their effort or to adjust their performance strategies to match what the goal requires” (Locke & Lathame, p. 708, 2002). By breaking down the desired outcome into sub goals’ we can potentially provide students with specific targets, making success feel more attainable. If we consider this approach alongside SDT, we could see how this might be an effective way of motivating students to not only engage in tasks they previously struggled with but also may enable us to give positive performance feedback linked to the sub goals’ in an attempt to enhance competence.

In part 3 we will consider what these practical examples might look like in the classroom.

Daisy Holland-Selby is English Lead Practitioner at Dixons Allerton Academy. She is also an Evidence Lead for Dixons Academies Trust, focusing on the evidence around cognitive science.

Cook, D. A., & Artino Jr, A. R. (2016). Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories. Medical education, 50(10), 9971014 
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: Changing the way you Think to Fulfil Potential. The Random House Pulishing Group. 
Fletcher-Wood, H. (2018, 02 February) Showing what success looks like: the magic of models. 
Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist, 57, 705 – 717.
Willingham, D. T. (2008). Ask the Cognitive Scientist Should Learning Be Its Own Reward? American Educator, 6, 2007 – 2008.

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