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How to Develop a Greater Sense of Motivation in Students

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Teachers can know their content backwards and forwards. They might have put hours into their lesson plans. But if their students aren't motivated, learning won't happen.

Often, childhood experiences may make motivation harder for students, according to a new working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a multidisciplinary research collaborative housed at Harvard University. The paper takes a look at the machinery of motivation: what’s going on in children’s brains when they’re motivated, and what’s holding them back?

The researchers identify two types of motivation: approach motivation, which steers us toward a reward, and avoidance motivation, which prompts us to avoid damage. Ideally, they balance each other out. Approach is foundational to most forms of learning, while avoidance can inhibit higher-level learning by forcing us to fixate on our immediate response to a task, rather than a long-term goal. Ultimately, to survive, we need both, but when they’re out of balance, it can lead to impulse-control problems, anxiety, or depression, among other mental health struggles.

Our motivation systems are partially laid out by genetics, but they’re also shaped by experiences. High levels of stress and a dearth of positive relationships with adults can affect how children’s brains respond to different tasks. Caring adults can help students develop the motivation systems that will serve them well, long into adulthood.

How to Build Healthy Motivation

Elicit curiosity and encourage exploration. Beyond their basic needs, children are intrinsically motivated by exploration, play, mastery, and success — all of which lay the groundwork for meaningful learning. Adults can reinforce these motivations through positive feedback of kids' natural tendencies, rather than tampering these tendencies by dismissing opportunities to explore, or being overly fearful that children will get hurt — fears that can rub off. Caring adults whom children can trust can help them figure out what to actually be afraid of and avoid. Children from more volatile or abusive environments, perhaps lacking that caring adult influence, might become more highly attuned to avoidance and lose interest in healthy exploration.

Don’t rely on incentives. But extrinsic feedback by itself is insufficient to drive motivation — the goal is to help kids develop their own inner fire to learn. Children have been shown to stop engaging in activities of their own accord once they’ve been given a tangible reward for it. “Systems focused solely on external rewards and punishments are unlikely to achieve sustained, productive motivation,” the report’s authors warn; “those that balance intrinsically motivating activities — such as creative problem-solving and playful learning — with positive feedback are more likely to support healthy motivation over the long run.”

Remind children that success is possible. We’re unlikely to be motivated to do anything if we think it’s impossible. A growth mindset — the belief that we can change and improve through practice, and that our talents and skills aren’t fixed — enables children to get motivated.  

Prioritize social interaction. From babies to adolescents, social interaction is a key to motivation, releasing natural opioids — dopamine and serotonin — that activate the brain’s reward system. One study showed that babies learned language more quickly through face-to-face interactions with a caregiver than by watching that caregiver on video. In our digital world, apps and screens can be supplements for learning, but in-person interactions remain essential.

Remember that we all have different intrinsic motivators. A child intrinsically motivated to play sports might respond well to constructive criticism from a coach, eager for the internal sense of satisfaction from doing well. But another student might respond more to encouragement and get discouraged by criticism. Be mindful that these different motivation systems may be due to children's genes and their life experiences, and that they might require different approaches to motivate.

Grace Tatter is a staff writer for Usable Knowledge, which translates education research and well-tested practices so they're accessible to practitioners, policymakers, and parents. Usable Knowledge is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 


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