The best type of student motivation, and how to encourage it

What's the best – and worst – kind of motivation for your child to learn? Shane Green reports on new research that uncovers the answers.

It’s the question that parents and teachers regularly grapple with, particularly with the challenges over the past 18 months: How can I motivate my student to learn?

A new study into what motivates students has delved into the science of motivation and students, examining 144 studies involving more than 79,000 students around the world, from the primary years to university.

The team of Canadian and Australian researchers concluded the best way for students to learn and succeed is what’s called self-determined motivation. Three factors need to be at work: students need a sense of competency, autonomy and belonging.

Lead author of the study Julien Bureau, an associate professor at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada, says this combination means a student doing a task feels they have the skills needed to tackle it (competency), they have chosen to do it (autonomy), and they feel connected to others (belonging). They will enjoy doing it and feel motivated.

And parents – and particularly teachers – have an important role to play helping to encourage and develop it.

Why rewards and punishments don't work

‘The first thing we wanted to know was what makes students motivated? Can we have any more definitive answer on that question?’ explains Julien.

The researchers looked at several kinds of motivation, involving internal and external motivators.

There’s the kind of motivation where we do things because they are enjoyable. ‘You witness it all the time in young children. They always go after things that are enjoyable, fun, interesting,’ says Julien, who appeared on a recent episode of isPodcast.

‘And it also stays with us for our whole lifetime. Anything that’s enjoyable that you have no difficulty doing, you find fun, that kindles your creativity, that’s really the intrinsic motivation type.’

But as Julien points out, school is not always fun for everybody. ‘So there needs to be something more than intrinsic motivation that students have to rely on,’ he says. ‘Something that would help them with being persistent through tough times at school.’

There are other forms of motivation – often with negative consequences. A student may be motivated by pressure. ‘Maybe they want to avoid shame or guilt or failure,’ says Julien. ‘Or maybe they really like the feeling of high they get when they succeed in school.’

But this comes with costs to students in the medium and long term, in the form of anxiety or even exhaustion.

The worst kind of motivator is based on rewards or punishment. ‘Maybe some students will focus on their learning because they get external rewards for doing so or to avoid punishments for not doing so,’ says Julien. ‘And this is very bad, because not only does this not help with actual learning, it makes the students feel unqualified.’

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How parents and teachers can help

So the best kind of motivation is self-determined motivation – characterised by persistence and wellbeing. Self-determined students engage in their studies because they know how important it is to them, and they highly value what it means for them.

Julien and his fellow researchers – Josh Howard at Monash University, Jane Chong at Curtin University, and Frédéric Guay, also from Quebec – were keen to discover how teachers and parents can help develop this high-quality motivation.

This is what they recommend:

  1. Show empathy. Your student’s thoughts and feelings are valid. Acknowledge their perspective and trust them when they share important information with you. When you do so, they’ll be more likely to listen to their inner voice about what’s good for them.
  2. Explain demands. For example, you can explain why homework and exams are important. If we tell the students and our children why these things are important, then they have a much greater ability to understand why they’re doing it.
  3. Support active participation. If students feel they can personalise coursework, personalise assignments, make meaningful choices for their learning experience, then they’ll feel that they have a voice.

The research team found that both parents and teachers could help – but the teacher has a much bigger impact on the quality of motivation of students.

‘So it’s not really that parents are not important, but let’s say if you have a teacher that’s really not helpful with their student’s motivation, the parent cannot compensate as much. But (every) bit that one does, it’s better,’ says Julien.

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