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All About Motivation

Autonomy, responsibility, and other insights into what drives students to want to work hard — and to like it

September 21, 2018
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When you allow autonomy and require responsibility, you encourage motivation and self-guided learning in your students — and you fuel academic achievement and a sense of excitement. Here, we explore these and other insights into student motivation from researchers and experts in the field of education.

Ask a Researcher, a project from Digital Promise and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, offers evidence-based guidance on classroom dilemmas. We pair questions from educators across the country with answers from researchers and experts. Are you in need of insight for your own teaching challenge? You can submit your question here.

Does offering students a choice in assignments lead to greater engagement?

Decades of psychological research concludes that providing students with choices leads to increased in autonomy and, in turn, motivation and learning. Students, like adults, tend to be more motivated to complete a task — and perform better on it — when they choose to engage in the task themselves, rather than having the task chosen for them.

But when it comes to giving choices — just like ice cream and movie sequels — more is not always better. Faced with too many choices, students can become overwhelmed, and they instead prioritize ending the choice-making process, rather than making the choice they really think is best. Research suggests three to five options may produce the most satisfaction and motivation.

Read more from Carly Robinson, a Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on Digital Promise.

How do we allow for inquiry while still ensuring learning (the proficiency of standards)?

Inquiry and learning are not meant to be mutually exclusive, but rather complementary parts of any teaching and learning experience. Inquiry is a vehicle for understanding. And understanding, different from the accumulation of knowledge, entails being flexible with what one knows. It is this flexibility that, we hope, will support young people in exhibiting the proficiency of standards that are required of them in many school settings, while also giving them the opportunity to further flex their understanding in new and exciting ways. Allowing students autonomy — the ability to choose how to express their knowledge to their teacher — is an essential gateway to engagement; when students feel empowered, they become more excited to learn.

Read more from Edward Clapp, a principal investigator at Project Zeroon Digital Promise.

What are the most effective practices for facilitating diverse youth leadership in schools?

Most young people are inherently driven to create positive change and to be leaders. Unfortunately, we don’t always make it easy for young people to see their inherent motivation as something useful for, or related to, school. How can we foster young people’s natural capacities to be leaders, in ways that are equitable and collectively beneficial?

When designed correctly and allowed to work on substantive issues, student government can be an authentic leadership body. If this group is designed in ways that fully represents the demographics of the school and the interests of students, then it can play a fundamental role in shaping the school’s values and structures. A representative group of students could also collect data from their peers about what they want, and then share these data with adults. This process would allow students to think about their needs and desires, and how these connect to the heart of the school’s pedagogy. For all young people, but particularly for young people who have been oppressed in society, getting the tools and opportunities to create change can start to help undo the trauma of feeling powerless.

Read more from Gretchen Brion-Meisels, an expert in adolescent development and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on Digital Promise.  

Do digital learning materials improve student achievement or motivation?

I can think of two main ways that technology can effectively increase engagement with the kind of tasks traditionally found on worksheets: giving feedback and tracking student performance. You want computers to offer feedback that reinforces the work that led to a correct response, or feedback that helps guide the learner to pathways to correct answers. Feedback for correct answers, from the teacher or the computer, should highlight the steps that led to success. Feedback for incorrect answers should promote reflection on the error.

Digital technology can use past performance and the performance of similar students to dynamically determine what item, tasks, or bit of instruction should come next. The focus on learning can be reinforced by a focus on growth, and digital systems can display that growth graphically and immediately. That kind of progress feedback can be very motivating. We all like to see ourselves getting better.

Read more from David Dockterman, a researcher and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on Digital Promise.

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