lots of candy

From external to internal student motivation

Low student motivation is a challenge that many teachers face. I can remember being so frustrated that all I wanted was for that one student to sit down and allow me to teach without having to redirect poor behavior for 10 minutes. I am not ashamed to admit that I checked the attendance in advance to see if today was going to be a good day or a challenging one. I have grown and learned over the years. There is no silver bullet to tackle low student motivation, but that doesn’t mean that you ever stop acquiring tools and experimenting. External motivation (points, prizes, this-for-that) is a standard response to motivate students to engage and make good decisions. These things do yield results, but they don’t always last.

Research is clear that the best motivation comes from within. When students make up their mind that they are going to pursue academic excellence for their benefit, you will not have to spend as much time motivating them to engage and give effort. If you realize that your current motivational skills lean heavily towards the external, don’t worry. You can still use the external motivation to eventually transition the students to develop that intrinsic motivation. I recently came across some research that offers a 3 step process to create this transition:

1. Provide external rewards

This is the simplest form of student motivation. The desired behavior is easily understood. The reward must soon follow after a reasonable amount of time. During this phase improvement in academic performance and decision-making are also acknowledged.

2. Increase use of social praise and gradually decrease the amount of external rewards

As you start to pull back on the external rewards, significantly increase your words of affirmation. Give special attention effort and improvement. Of course you still want results, but for some students the effort and improvement is a big step towards the results. Lavish students with praise during this phase.

3. Encourage students to identify their progress and explain it

Reflection is such an important component to change and growth. Encourage your students to reflect on where they’ve been and where they are now. Have students write self-affirming statements regarding their progress. Here are some examples:

Now I know……Because……..
I did a great job on……….
I am doing better in ………….because I………….
I feel great because I changed………………….
I used to……………, but now I…………………..

The idea is that the students will be able to encourage themselves. At some point during that last step, the students should realize that there is so much to celebrate and anticipate with joy because they are progressing. That’s intrinsic motivation. Before you begin the process , I suggest you do a lot of reflection time about how long you want to spend on each step of the transition. If you do try this method, I would love to hear about it in the comments section.


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One more thing. If you are interested in learning more about motivation, I recommend Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.

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