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Tapping the Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Strategies to promote autonomy and other levers for motivation in an inclusive classroom setting
Intrinsic Motivation UK

Why is it that students are eager to start some tasks but not others? Why do some students complete certain assignments with care and other projects done by the same students are dashed off as quickly as possible or not completed at all?

Existing research on the science of learning provides some indication that targeting natural curiosity, providing choice in learning, and developing a growth mindset can help teachers guide their students toward motivation. And within the typical American classroom, students have a range of interests and outside experiences teachers can leverage to engage students.

Teachers may struggle to capitalize on this potential, wondering how to use these strengths to increase intrinsic motivation within everyday classroom activities. But they shouldn’t assume that some students are unmotivated by nature. “The biggest misconception [about motivation] is that students aren’t motivated,” says Rhonda Bondie, director of professional learning and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The good news is that everyone is motivated. It’s not that some people have it and some people don’t.”

Teachers can adjust the environment by using four levers in class culture to help students find their own motivation, says Bondie: autonomy, belonging, competence, and meaning (ABC+M).
Here are a few strategies that can help:

Make quality visible: Post required criteria for an assignment or more general criteria for all assignments in a highly visible part of the room. Also post what a task would need to exceed expectations.

  • How it helps: A task becomes clear and alleviates confusion. Students will feel like they can begin and complete a task autonomously. Additionally, they will start to observe qualities in their own work that will help them demonstrate understanding in the future. By annotating where they see the qualities in their work students will recognize competence.

“The biggest misconception [about motivation] is that students aren’t motivated. The good news is that everyone is motivated. It’s not that some people have it and some people don’t.” – Rhonda Bondie

Provide a starting point: Ask students to check two things that seem familiar and circle one thing that seems new on a given assignment — a routine called Check, Circle, Old, and New. This will help with goal setting and reflection because it provides a visible starting point. “Usually when you say goal setting, [students] usually think more like New Year’s resolutions, and really goal setting can be as simple as asking students to jot down a starting position,” Bondie says.

  • How it helps: This helps students break assignments down into tasks that appear more manageable. They feel a greater sense of belonging — and also find greater meaning in assignments — if they can see a relationship between new learning and previous experiences. While these modifications increase feelings of belonging and meaning, they also improve learning. “We’re really talking about setting cognitive goals for our thinking that encourage us to reflect and make connections and lead to deeper more effective learning at the same time,” Bondie says.

Find meaning in routines: “Whenever you want to engage students in a behavioral task such as lining up or cleaning the room, begin by presenting the problem as an opportunity for research or investigation,” Bondie suggests. For example, asking, “How long did it take us to get started this morning? How do we feel about that?” might provide an entry point for students to collect data about morning transitions and use it to determine how to make them faster.

  • How it helps: A task like cleaning their desks or getting settled in the morning takes on meaning and provokes thinking when it is seen as a process that can be modified or changed based on what a student or class does or does not do. “Teachers can vary the thinking required for tasks, and the number of ways they’re asking students to put things together. We can control things that lead students to greater autonomy and feelings of competence,” Bondie says.

Assign to reflection instead of completion: When students are completing the task for the teacher, school is work. However, tasks can be modified to support motivation throughout the process. Thinking routines like “I used to think ______ and now I think ______. So next I will _______,” can keep the learning going.

  • How it helps: By requiring reflection to identify next steps, the student remains engaged. The student has some autonomy over the next part of the process and is directed by their own evaluations, rather than the teacher’s directions.

Key Takeaways:

  • Autonomy: Support students as they monitor and reflect on their own work.
  • Belonging: Consider the wealth of interests and experiences within the room. Invite students to find familiar elements in their assignments.
  • Competence: In addition to long term goals, set goals within the context of immediate assignments.
  • Meaning: Give students space and time to think about their own learning. Where can they find room to change something?

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