Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Dynamic Learning Environment/Motivation

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How can we motivate students?

Teachers are often faced with three types of students: the overachiever, underachiever, and the child who is some where in between. However, teachers, parents, and school systems are constantly looking for ways to motivate students. Some may say that motivation starts at home. Others may even say that if parents train their child early on to do well in school and to be enthusiastic about learning then most children would do well in school. Then students would not need to be motivated by teachers. In order for motivation to occur all parties must be willing to work together as a whole unit.

What is Motivation[edit]

Motivation is to incite, encourage, or arouse a person. People use motivation to help people to enjoy something that they normally find boring and repetitive. There are two basic types of motivation- intrinsic and extrinsic. Jere Brophy states, “ Student motivation is rooted in students' subjective experiences, especially those connected to their willingness to engage in lessons and learning activities and their reasons for doing so.” Motivation is a way for teachers to grab the attention of those who are underachievers in the hope that they will become interested enough in learning so that their grades will rise.

Along with motivation, there comes a motive- a cause or reason to do something. Sometimes it may help if students are given a reason to become higher achievers than they were before. Why should students like history? What will they use history for in the future? Can I succeed without knowing or understanding history? Those are questions students may ask about any subject that does not interest them. The point of motivation is to get students to learn because they want to do it not because state laws require it. Teachers do not wish for students to have the attitude that they are going to do something because they know that it is required. Teachers want their students to learn because it gives them satisfaction.

However, regardless of these facts many children still refuse to learn because a part of them has given up. It's not that they don't care it's the fact that they need someone to care about them and to give them positive reinforcement and encouragement. There are some children who show little to no interest in certain topics, which at times makes it difficult to motivate them to learn. What would it take to get such children interested in learning? Behaviors that help motivate students are "Hold high but realistic expectations for your students, help students set achievable goals for themselves, tell students what they need to do to succeed in your course, strengthen students' self-motivation, avoid creating intense competition among students and be enthusiastic about your subject"(Tools for Teaching).

Intrinsic Motivation[edit]

Intrinsic motivation is when people engage in an activity for their own sake. They participate and show interest because they are doing it for their own personal motives. No one has to tell them what to do or why it is important, they just do. Some theories associated with intrinsic motivation are the self-determination theory, basic needs theory and achievement- goal theory.

The self–determination theory states that social settings promote intrinsic motivation when they satisfy three innate psychological needs: autonomy which is self-determination in getting things done the way you want them done, competence which is your ability to learn and use skills for manipulating and controlling environments and relatedness which is your ability to associate yourself with others (Kelly). Those who fall under this category are those whom teachers label as over achievers. “Motivation to succeed is determined by the strength of one’s overall need for achievement….” (Brophy 56). They often already have set goals that they desire to fulfill or are doing so because their parents have always pushed them from the very beginning.

The basic needs theory elaborates the concept of basic needs and its relation to psychological health and well-being (Wiki). This theory goes hand in hand with the self-determination theory because they both deal with healthy development of a person’s personal or psychological needs. Both theories show how people work to become satisfied about something in their lives. These needs are innate, natural, universal, and essential for the health and well-being of all(Wiki).

Achievement goal theory is concerned with individuals who wish to achieve objectives and who desire to succeed. Accomplishment is important for its own sake and not for rewards that accompany it. With this theory people are driven to complete and accomplish goals.

Extrinsic Motivation[edit]

Extrinsic motivation is the use of rewards and punishments in order to push students, as well as other unmotivated people, into becoming self-motivated with the desire to learn and to do things required of them. The use of rewards and punishment can be used for both underachievers and those who are neither and do what is necessary only to pass the class. Privileges can also be used to motivate students.

Using extrinsic motivation is a method to an end. Many teachers believe that using extrinsic motivation will meet their short-term expectations goals sooner. Using rewards, even daily, can meet classroom goals, department of education goals and behavioral goals quicker. The students recognize their performance goals, social and academic, by being able to see the end as a reward. Extrinsic motivation is the most popular form of motivation because more students are visual learners then cognitive learners.

According to published results from a conference held on Hard Work and High Expectations, when students combined inspiration and perspiration, they are rewarded. Students are not lazy or stupid. However, you cannot use education reforms to change students who do not set individual goals for themselves. Education is the means to an end.

Teachers are developing classroom strategies to get students to learn. A school format that balances the rewards for effort with the ability works. Set goals for students who are less talented and reward study and personal accomplishments as well as grades. Effort and ability are each student’s instruments for learning.

Active and Passive Motivation[edit]

In general, teachers that practice active-motivational techniques will not ask the students to memorize the lecture material through rigorous note taking and repetition. They are more concerned with giving the class the opportunity to understand concepts on an individual level. A student who is actively motivated will learn material understanding that he or she will be putting it to practical use at sometime after. In a sense it’s learning a lesson through direct experience rather than only understanding it conceptually, which allows a student to develop individual perspectives. Passive motivation is described as more of an extrinsic motivational technique. A teacher who motivates students passively will teach material to the students with the intention of testing them after. It is believed that by doing this, the students will learn the material regardless of their interest in it because it will be necessary to complete the test (Benware).

In a study completed by the American Education Research Journal, active and passive motivational techniques were compared in terms of effectiveness. Students learning actively were expected to tutor other students on the material after they learned it as where students learning passively were expected to take a test. It was found that the students who were anticipating tutoring had a learning rating of 7.72 while those learning passively scored a 7.09. They concluded that active motivation more effectively reaches students on an intrinsic level, making it a more efficient method.

How to Motivate Students[edit]

There are many possible ways to motivate students. Most students are excited about learning and wants the teacher to challenge them. Parents can help teachers motivate their children by being an active participant in their child’s education. Attending parent teacher conferences can easily do this or by contacting your child’s teacher to see how your child is doing in school. Parents have to be concerned about their children's welfare as well as education. Parents need to be aware of what their child is doing and learning in each of their classes. The concept of doing well in school and enjoying the experience needs to be put into the child’s mind at an early age. Children need to be taught at an early age how important education is and how important it is to have goals.

Teachers can help motivate students in numerous ways. One way to motivate students is that, just as some teachers feel as if they must control their classrooms, students need to feel that they have some control over their education (Kelly). Teachers can give students control by asking them what the class rules should be or asking them how they thought class went last period, and ask them for ways to make the topic more interesting. Secondly, students need to feel competent (Kelly). They need to be able to relate to the topic or subject in some way. Students need to feel that they are able to grasp and understand the material. Finally, students need to feel connected (Kelly). The classroom should be an environment in which they feel safe and wanted. A student should not be afraid or nervous about going into any classroom. Teachers should be supportive and willing to give students recognition when they do something well.

Students play a large role in whether or not they are motivated. They have to make up their own minds that they wish to learn. Parents and teachers can do the things I mentioned above and more, but unless the student is willing to cooperate there is little anyone can do. Motivating students falls not only on teachers but also very much on the students themselves. We look at the teachers when we also need to look at the students and find out why they have no or little interest in learning and what they do have an interest in. Some children just need more help than others. Students must be willing to cooperate with his or her teacher and parents.

According to Tools for Teaching, "Give frequent, early, positive feedback that supports students' beliefs that they can do well, ensure opportunities for students' success by assigning tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult,help students find personal meaning and value in the material,create an atmosphere that is open and positive and help students feel that they are valued members of a learning community."

Conclusions[edit]

My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others. That is nice but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.

—Helen Hayes

Motivating students is a very important topic. Motivating students is a job all by itself unless you have students who are willing to work with you. Involving the students in activities can also help motivate them. I think that any child can be motivated but each party must have open lines of communication. As long as all parties involved feel that they can express their opinions and know that their thoughts are being heard and not falling on deaf ears then that is a huge step in motivating students.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Two students in a teacher's class are underachievers who the teacher tries to motivate as much as possible, but nothing she has done has helped. The teacher held a conference with each of their parents but the parents said that it is her job and the schools job to make sure that their children are motivated. Whose job is it to motivate students?
A. The parent
B. The teacher
C. The student
D. All of the above

D. All of the above

Ms. Miller, a history teacher at a local middle school, has been trying for years to get all of her students involved in class, but never manages to succeed. She has decided to just let those students do whatever they want and to focus on those who are interested. She has no time or patience anymore to deal with those type of students. When should teachers give up on motivating students?
A. When students show no interest in the class.
B. When students show little interest in the class.
C. It's not the teacher's job to motivate students.
D. Teachers should never give up on their students.

D. Teachers should never give up on their students.

Maria has no interest in school at all. She's always home alone and does whatever she wants whenever she wants. Since her parents show no concern regarding her education she doesn't care about her education either. How can parents motivate their children?
A. It isn't the parents' job to motivate their children.
B. By beating and threatening their children.
C. By being supportive and concerned.
D. None of the above.

C. By being supportive and concerned.

Paul has no interest in school at all no matter what his parents try to do. He hates school and says that it interrupts with his video time. Paul represents what type of motivation?
A. Intrinsic motivation
B. Extrinsic motivation
C. Both A and B
D. None of the above

B. Extrinsic motivation

Tia is always doing in her classes more than what's required in her classes. She has the desire to be top of her class and to attend the best universities. Tia represents what type of motivation?
A. Extrinsic motivation
B. Intrinsic motivation
C. Self-motivation
D. All of the above

B. Intrinsic motivation

Susie is having a hard time with school. Her parents set up a chart where she will get a reward for every 3 As she bring home. This motivation is an example of:
A. Intrinsic motivation
B. Extrinsic motivation
C. Active motivation
D. Passive motivation

C. Active motivation

Mrs. Smith wants the class to learn. She wants the to understand instead of just memorize. This is an example of:
A. Passive motivation
B. Active motivation
C. Intrinsic motivation
D. None of the above

A. Passive motivation

Mr. Jefferson is having a difficult time with one of his students. This student will not pay attention, and is constantly disrupting the class. Mr. Jefferson told the student that for every time he acted up or didn't do his work, he would get a check mark on the board. When he received 2 check marks, he would have silent lunch. When he received 3 check marks, he would go to the principal's office and his parents would be called. This is an example of:
A. Extrinsic motivation
B. Intrinsic motivation
C. Active/passive motivation
D. None of the above

A. Extrinsic motivation

What do most students like as a motivation?
A. Come to class on time
B. Be challenged
C. Be interested
D. Get involved

B. Be challenged

Setting expectations for your students can help motivate them.
A. True
B. False

A. True

Active involvement is important.
A. True
B. False

A. True

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal sample responses.

Based on your opinions, knowledge, or experiences when do you think that it is impossible to motivate a student?

There are different circumstances which make it appear as if it is impossible to motivate a student. For instance, when a student lacks confidence in him/herself and doesn’t allow the teacher, parent or anyone else to help build up their self-esteem. Also, when the student puts forth an extreme amount of effort to resist any and all motivation techniques made by teachers and parents, it makes them appear to be unmotivatable. Combining these two factors can and does lead to the impossibility of motivating the student. In the first sentence I wrote the word “appear” because deep down I do believe that it is possible to motivate all students. I do understand why it will at times seem near impossible to really be able to reach and motivate those difficult students. They will resist all attempts teachers and parents make and will do everything in their power to make sure that the teacher or parent is not successful in motivating. Ultimately, though, its just about finding the right technique to reach each student in a personal way. As a teacher it is important to remember while it may appear impossible to reach and motivate all students, there are times you will have to think or look outside the normal tactics to motivating students, that is were success lies. —G. Hammerand


I believe it is impossible to motivate students when their motivation effort is no longer existent. Students may appear to be unmotivated for a number of reasons like they simply don’t care. If a student, a teenager in particular, doesn’t see a reason to know something, they probably won’t care. Find something to make the content meaningful. For very reluctant students, find a way to make them an expert on something or simply show you care about them. That may be enough to make them care about you and your class. Another reason is they are shy or intimidated. If a student feels embarrassed or shy in your classroom, they will stay clammed up. Many feel it is better to not try at all than try and fail. Also, there may be something else on their mind. If Suzy just broke up with her boyfriend, she’s not going to be very in-tune with the math lesson today. The teacher should be understanding of this and try to personally encourage Suzy or cut her some slack for the day. Give her the assignment for homework and personally check with her that she understands. Kids who aren't interested in learning are rarely motivated by parents who aren't interested in properly raising their children. Back in the day, my parents placed strict limits on my activities when I wasn't doing well in school, and always wondered if that B could be brought up to an A, which most of the time it could be. When my mother motivated me at home I wanted to do better in school. —Kyonna Withers


In my opinion all students are capable of being motivated you just have to find what interest them. Of course some students are easier to motivate then others because of their personal experiences with expert support and guidance. Those students who take a little longer to motivate still deserve the support from their teacher because sometimes that's all they have is the support of an educator. It's about getting to know your students from the day that they enter into your classroom or the time that you introduce yourself to them. Students need to be motivated because some of them have already experience learned helplessness from the past years of their life. For example: The teacher comes into the classroom and wants to teach about ratios in math class, but notices that some of her students are not pay attention or distrubing others. What can this teacher do to motivate the one's that are not attentive? My response to this question would be to teach this lesson in away that will engage your students both in motivating them and capturing their attention. This can be through the use of all strategies and techniques, such as hands on materials and in school and out of school resources that students find interesting to them. Examples would be to having them to look for scores in sport magazines, inviting guest speakers to discuss topics using ratios like drop out rate, audio and visual resources such as approved DVD's dealing with ratios. Other ways to motivate students is to have a orderly classroom, which deals with classroom management. In addition, the teacher has to have daily routines and procedures to help eliminate disruption and behavioral issues. The teacher should use praise and reinforcements appropiately. This means equity for all the students in the classroom. In conclusion, the most important factor in motivating students is learning about them and what makes them excited to listen and curves their enthusiasm to learn. This may mean the teacher having one on one meetings as needed to build their trust level, self-confidence, and motivation to want to do their best because they know that you as their teacher cares. Students have to know that you care about them and that will help them to perform better, as well as motivate them to be engaged learners in the classroom. —Tiffany L. McRae


I don’t have a lot of knowledge or experience in regards to when it is impossible to motivate a student, but I have an educated opinion and some ideas. From observation and a little bit of experience I feel that students become unmotivated when they are not stimulated. I also feel that it is impossible to motivate a student when he or she is discouraged or upset about not being able to get a concept. When students struggle to understand a concept or just cannot figure a problem out he or she might become so inwardly negative that even the most positive teacher cannot reach that particular student. I feel that this can be a product of teachers not always giving a 110% in motivating the students. There are so many different ways to motivate and so many chances to do so, so it is up to the teacher to continually motivate from day one so that a child can never become impossible to motivate the student when he or she is discouraged. —Emily Hampton


I believe that there are instances when it will be impossible to motivate students. Unfortunately, there are circumstances that teachers cannot control, such as the environment in which children live. Factors such child abuse, neglect, and having parents who show no interest in a child’s academics, will certainly affect a child’s motivation in the classroom. It is important for teachers to realize that they will not be able to motivate all students. Even if the situation is not as severe as abuse, there are some students who will not be motivated if they do not have an interest in the subject matter. However, it is up to the teacher to present the information in a stimulating way. It is important to involve the students in the lesson as much as possible. Having students share their opinions out loud, working in groups, and relating the subject matter to their own personal experiences will help motivate students. Another factor to consider is learning disabilities. Some students will need Special Education services in order for them to understand the subject matter. If students cannot understand the material, it is very difficult for them to become engaged and motivated. Although teachers may not be able to motivate all students, if they are aware of their students’ interest and special needs, they should be able to motivate most students. —Amanda Walters


I never think it’s impossible to motivate a student. You may not get the student to do exactly what you want him to do, but if there’s ever one ounce of energy used to do something he’s not done before, he’s been motivated. Too often, teachers want to give up if they don’t succeed the first couple of times. They say the student is unreachable, they don’t want to learn. What methods has the teacher used to crack that student? Okay, say for example – there’s a student who comes to school every day, goes to class, does most of the work required and never gets in trouble. He’s already beaten the odds by completing 3 out of the 4 I just listed. He comes to school, goes to class and never gets in trouble – someone or something has motivated this child because he keeps coming back. He just may not be motivated in the way the teacher wants him to be, but just coming to school is motivation enough. Something or someone is bringing him back. Begin with the little things, when you see him in the hall, speak to him; make small conversation with him, anything! You never know what words will reach him and make him feel like he belongs, that someone cares. Maybe home life is so difficult that he needs to come to school to succeed that particular day. Sometimes we need to go the extra step or two to help this child make it through any given day; find out a little more about what this student likes or excels in and then compliment him on it. Case in point: there was a student who walked around with a scowl on his face all the time, never smiled. He was said to have behavior problems, didn’t want to do the work assigned – I found out he was quite an artist. I one day asked to see some of his work – he looked at me as if I was crazy, because out of the clear blue, I just asked to see his work. I told him I was serious, I wanted to see what he did in his spare time – his work was quite amazing and I told him so. I would see him in the hallway and he started speaking to me first, before I even saw him. I must admit that when this child first entered our building, I was a bit hesitant and afraid because of what I had heard – but he was just like any other child, just needed someone to show an interest. Which brings me full circle in the foundation of motivating students, simply take an interest and make sure it’s a genuine interest; if it’s a half-hearted attempt, you’ll get nothing in return. Approach this child knowing that you will motivate him, and it shall happen. Don’t expect too much too soon; baby steps are better than no steps at all. —Marsha H. Stores

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