Educational research did not hold a lot of meaning for me as an undergraduate student. After spending time in the classroom, I developed a context to frame my understanding. I realized that small changes in my approach could have a significant impact on students’ beliefs and performance. Revisiting motivational theory helped me to establish a foundation for independent learning despite the push to “cover” content. Here are six research-based pointers that K-12 teachers can use now, along with the official terms to impress everyone with your knowledge in the teacher’s lounge!
1. Promote positive beliefs about learning. A child’s underlying beliefs, including the ability to be successful in a task, are directly tied to self-motivation and self-regulation.
- Use “Constructive Failure:” We must promote recognition of failure as a learning experience. Children who learn to attribute success or failure to effort as opposed to factors outside their control will exert greater effort in the future.
- Foster “Incremental” versus “Entity Theory” of Intelligence: Discouraging the belief that intelligence is “fixed” biologically and unchangeable can enhance motivation. We must help students to understand that intelligence is “incremental” and can be increased through a student’s own learning behavior. (Burhans & Dweck, as cited in Stipek, 2002)
- Encourage “Internal” versus “External Locus of Control:” Students who believe that events in their lives are controlled by forces outside themselves (luck, chance, fate, biased others) are said to have an external locus of control. We must socialize students to believe that outcomes are generally contingent on their own behavior (internal locus of control). (Dweck, 2000 as cited in Stipek, 2002)
- Avoid Comparisons and Competition: Teachers should avoid inadvertent comparisons to classmates. This tends to cause anxiety and frequently undermines effort and motivation. As much as possible, students should be encouraged to compete against themselves by measuring their own progress and setting goals. Oftentimes, what looks like a cooperative activity is really a competitive activity; e.g. when table one competes with table two.
- Limit the Use of Rewards: Studies have shown that overuse of tangible rewards can actually hinder motivation to learn. Rewards can be most effective when motivation is low and/or when a task is unpleasant. When motivation is already high, rewards have been shown to reduce children’s desire to complete a task. Extrinsic rewards should be removed once a pattern of motivation has been developed. When tangible incentives are used for the long term, studies have shown that children can lose sight of the learning goal and focus only on earning the reward. (Brophy, 2002)
The American educational theorist Edward Hutchings believed that “the object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.” Reinforcing healthy attitudes and beliefs, in combination with the teaching of skills and meaningful content, will have transformative value in how students perceive their own education.
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Margaret Reed earned an MAEd from Michigan State University and taught middle and high school history for ten years. She has been a Marygrove mentor since 2009. As an outgrowth of her work in curriculum development at the secondary level, Margaret is pursuing further graduate studies with the goal of commencing a second career in instructional technology design.
Brophy, J. (2004). Motivating Students to Learn (2nd ed.) Mawah, New Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum and Associates.
Stipek, D. (2002). Motivation to Learn: Integrating theory and practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.