Motivation Solutions

It was Covington (1999) who wrote that:

In schools it is the reasons for achieving that-control not only the quality of one’s learning but, of equal importance, the meaning of one’s accomplishments for the continued will to learn. Some goals are unworthy and disrupt learning: avoiding failure, aggrandizing ability status for the sake of power, and gaining favor at the expense of others (p. 139).

By contrast, other goals encourage those behaviors associated with task engagement and creativity. We must identify these intrinsic goals and systematically reinforce them:

  • Mastery – becoming the best one can be;
  • Helping others – or, as defined more broadly by John Nicholls (1984, 1989), a commitment to solving society’s problems; and,
  • The satisfaction of curiosity

Such goals promote motivational equity – equity in that the satisfaction that comes from the struggle to achieve them are within the reach of all students, irrespective of background or ability. These sources of equity are denied students when excellence is defined competitively (p. 139). The following are five broad generalizations suggested by Covington.

  1. Provide Engaging Assignments

Schools must provide the opportunity for intrinsic goals to emerge in the course of daily work. In effect, when possible schools must turn ”work into play,” recalling Mark Twain’s distinction between work, “whatever a body is obliged to do,” and play, ”whatever a body is not obliged to do.” What, then, are the characteristics of tasks that promote a sense of playful involvement and personal commitment?

Thomas Malone (1981) suggests four characteristics: manageable challenges, authentic tasks, curiosity arousal, and fantasy arousal.

Manageable Challenges

Tasks are engaging to the degree they challenge the individual’s present capacity, yet permit some control over the level of challenge faced like the game of tag. Tag permits each participant to adjust the level of challenge to his or her own physical ability by choosing whom one chases and by modifying the distances to stay away from whomever is “it” (Eifferman, 1974). Such subtle adjustments create drama and excitement, which is to say that the outcome of each round is left in doubt.

Authentic Tasks

 School tasks are engaging to the extent that they are personally meaningful and interesting (Deci, 1992). When interest in an assignment is high, students perceive grades as a positive motivator, that is, as inspiring them to do their best work. By contrast, when these same students have little personal interest in an assignment, they tend to view grades as a way for teachers to force at least a minimum of effort (Covington & Wiedenhaupt, 1997).

Personal relevance is greatest when students practice thinking in the same ways as do real-life practitioners in the context of what Jean Lave (1988) refers to as “authentic activities.” Authentic activities, like serious games, have their counterpart throughout the real world, especially in the crafts and trade occupations – cooking, woodworking, gardening, and weaving. When individuals learn to perform authentic tasks, they become apprentices and enter into the life and community of the practitioner. Even highly formal occupations, including medicine and the law, are taught largely through a process of apprenticeship.

As John Sealy Brown and his colleagues point out (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989), graduate students in the sciences and the humanities refine their research skills by apprenticing to senior researchers, who themselves are working on authentic problems that require the resolution of ill-defined issues and the clarification of controversy, as contrasted to those kinds of well-defined workbook exercises that make up so much of school life.

In school, students are most often treated as novices or, worse yet, as supplicants in the most passive, infantilized sense of that term, whereas by contrast the expert is a practitioner. But beginners need not wait to become practitioners, despite their fledgling conceptual knowledge. They only need enter into a community of apprentices. Obviously, passing history or mathematics tests is not the same thing as entering into the world of the historian or the mathematician (p. 141).

Curiosity Arousal

 Assignments and projects are also intrinsically appealing to the extent they arouse and then satisfy curiosity. The arousal of curiosity depends on providing sufficient complexities so that out-comes are not always certain. Complexity that stimulates rather than overwhelms can be introduced by providing for the possibility of multiple goals that emerge within the same task as work proceeds (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975).

This process is described wonderfully by James Diggory (1966):

[But] once this exploration ends . . . [the student] tries to produce a result as good as the last one, but quicker. Next, he may disregard time altogether and try to improve the product. Later he may concentrate on the smoothness of the process and attempt to (p. 141) swing elegantly through a well – ordered and efficient routine. He may discover and invent new processes or adapt new materials or new methods of work (pp. 125—26).

It is the natural progression of goals described here that maximizes playful involvement. Assignments that feature emerging, multiple goals can be contrasted to tasks that are dominated by one constant, overweening purpose, that of winning over others, or tasks characterized by rigid, fixed conventions. These latter instances offer little incentive to take the risks associated with discovering and overcoming challenges; one is too busy worrying about who is ahead and who is behind (p. 142).

Fantasy Arousal

 Assignments are inherently captivating to the extent they elicit fantasy. Here fantasy does not mean merely unbridled wish fulfillment or fairy tales, but rather the creation of imaginary circumstances that permit the free and unfettered use of one’s growing abilities. The child who uses books as a medium of passage into new worlds of his or her own creation is but one example of this phenomenon. Such fantasizing stimulates the child to read more and better, thus closing the circle between self-reverie and competency.

The larger point is that if educators are clever enough they should be able to arouse students to greater involvement, and for the best of reasons – for the sake of satisfying curiosity, for the stimulation of personally valued imagery, and for meeting manageable yet challenging goals.

2. Reward Positive Reasons for Learning

Once a teacher arranges school assignments in ways that stimulate intrinsic engagement, the next step is to reward such behavior directly, as often as it occurs, and for anyone. For example, this might mean paying students for expressing curiosity, by giving them:

  • Grade credit
  • Recognition for each question they think of whose answer cannot be found in the reading assignment
  • Further credit for indicating where the answer might be found
  • In the case of scientific investigations, where not all inquiries have ready answers, giving credit for designing experiments to provide the necessary answers (p. 142).
  • Credit for improvement

By tying rewards to specific, well-defined actions, the economics of competitive scarcity can be reversed so that success is within the grasp of all students, not just a few. Equitable reward systems can be established by changing the basis on which success is defined with the students selecting realistic performance goals within their reach. Another approach is having success dependent on each student satisfying the requirements of a task, irrespective of how many others may also succeed an approach likened to the merit-badge system employed by the Boy Scouts of America.

Many, if not most, school tasks can be cast in absolute, merit-based terms, and have numerous counterparts in the outside world. The work now focuses on the obstacles imposed by the difficulty of the learning task itself, and on the various levels of excellence required, not on competing with others for diminishing rewards as it does make sense for all students to master as many of the basic lessons as possible (p. 143).

Plentiful Rewards

 It is largely when rewards (e.g., grades) are dispensed on a competitive basis that their value depends on scarcity. When rewards are distributed on a self-defined or merit basis, then pride in accomplishment depends more on whether students have improved, how hard they worked, or whether their work measures up to the teacher’s standards, no matter how many other students may also do well (Covington & Jacoby, 1973).

Mini-Max Principle Revisited

For another thing, the research suggests that when we pay students to perform, they will do only as much as necessary to win the prize and stop. Here, too, this danger is greatest when rewards are defined competitively. In contrast, when rewards are distributed for merit, and when learning, not performance, is the goal, the evidence suggests that eventually the experience of learning itself will acquire intrinsic properties (Ames & Archer, 1987a). When students learn that knowledge, in addition to its intrinsically satisfying properties, also has relevance for improving their lives (making an instrumental connection between knowledge and one’s goals) they will be motivated all the more (p. 144).

This link might be lost on young students who would otherwise see no majesty, no larger purpose, but only tedium in school. In effect, rewards for learning must be arranged so that the act of acquiring knowledge itself becomes a conditioned reinforcer. Money is a common conditioned reinforcer because it will buy these things, and that is the source of its reinforcing value. Students must be taught the lesson that knowledge, too, like money, buys things of value.

Over-justification Revisited

According to the over-justification hypothesis tangible rewards need not interfere with intrinsic task involvement, and may even enhance it (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996) depending on how extrinsic rewards are used. When rewards are used as information about how well students are doing or signal that a different approach is needed, then feedback messages can themselves take on intrinsic properties and such feedback need not always be positive to be effective.

For example, Ruth Butler and Mordici Nisan (1986) provided a group of sixth – grade students with feedback describing one aspect of a task that they had performed well and another aspect performed less well (e.g., “You thought of many ideas, but not many unusual ones”). These students continued (p. 145) to express interest in the task and improve their performance over several work sessions compared with another group that received feedback designed simply to arouse effort level – actually, a numerical score indicating how well each student performed relative to others. The performances of this latter group deteriorated over time because, as the children later explained in post-study interviews, they were worried about failure and were trying to avoid losing.

When rewards smack of surveillance, of being compared with others, or if they imply manipulation and control, even if it is thought to be for the student’s own good, youngsters – like adults – are likely to respond with anger, resentment and fear (Boggiano et al., 1988; Deci & Ryan, 1987).

Minimal Sufficiency

As noted, sometimes tangible rewards are needed to keep students involved long enough, especially in the early stages of learning, for the process of self-improvement to take on satisfying properties of its own. But extrinsic rewards should be used sparingly and withdrawn as soon as skills are adequately mastered. This realization has prompted Mark Lepper (1981) to propose the principle of ”minimal sufficiency,” that is, teachers should rely on extrinsic rewards only as absolutely necessary, and no more: the less powerful the extrinsic controls employed by teachers, the more likely students will be to internalize what they learn and apply it spontaneously without being prompted to do so.

  1. Put Students in Control

 Obviously, plentiful rewards by themselves are insufficient to sustain the will to learn. Students must also come to interpret their newly won successes as caused by their own skillful effort. Gaining a sense of personal control over events involves strengthening the belief that effort, not just ability, pays off. (p. 146). By shifting the focus from competitive goals to equity goals teachers can encourage plausible interpretations of failure other than low ability. If students are allowed to choose tasks within their level of competency then good self-judgment becomes the main reason for success, and failure occurs because of unrealistic aspirations, a cause of failure within the power of students to correct.

These observations take on special meaning in the light of David Mettee’s (1971) answer to the question of how the cycle of despair might be broken for failure-prone students who deny success and, on occasion, even sabotage their own efforts. Mettee proposed that such individuals might eventually accept total responsibility for their successes if they first started by taking only partial credit – just enough to engender some pride but not enough to arouse fear.

According to Mettee, as individuals become more comfortable with success and the sense of pride it creates, they will assume more of the credit. However, our self-worth analysis suggests a different approach. Overcoming fear of success is not so much a matter of growing accustomed to feelings of pride, but of restructuring the meaning of success. Failure-prone individuals do not accept credit for their successes because they are afraid that they will be unable to repeat them later.

But if these students exercise proper task analysis and set realistic goals, then success is repeatable. Hopefully, these students will not only accept credit for their successes – and not just partial credit – but will also become increasingly confident about their future chances.

In a recent article by Thomas Armstrong (2017) Five Ways to Use Student Choice to Improve Learning between the ages of 13 and 20, teenagers must develop an authentic “person” out of many possible selves derived from peers, cliques, mass media, and role models (see Innovative Authentic Learning). The German-born American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson regarded these years as a struggle between “identity formation” and “role confusion,” out of which a teenager will either establish an enduring sense of self or instead continue to search for identity in gangs, ideologies, bad romances, or other societal black holes.

One of the best ways to engage students in a process of “person-building” is to provide them with frequent opportunities in the classroom to make meaningful choices. Adolescence is not known as a great time for optimal decision-making. The regions of the brain that are most involved in decision-making (in the prefrontal cortex) are the last regions of the brain to fully develop in the early to mid-20s. Unfortunately, we see the results of bad decision-making by teens every day in the news when we read about adolescent traffic deaths, drug abuse, gang membership, cyberbullying, binge drinking, and other hazards. These incidents should only cause educators to double our resolve to do all we can in the classroom to help develop those areas of the brain responsible for choosing wisely (See: Executive Function and Academic Behavior)

  1. Let students choose the books they read.Lorrie McNeill, a middle school teacher in Georgia, decided to scrap the perennially required book To Kill a Mockingbird and allow students to choose their own books. Among their choices were chick-lit novels and books from the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey along with selections like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, a novel about black Americans in the South immediately following World War II. After several months of implementing her new reading plan, NcNeill observed, “I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with, whereas when I have them read To Kill a Mockingbird, I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it
  2. Use student polling.Teachers are increasingly using free or low-cost apps for mobile phones and tablets to gauge student opinion on a variety of topics or to glean responses to content-related questions and issues, such as Poll Everywhere,  LocaModa,  Socrative,  The Answer PadClassPager, and even Twitter. Such technologies provide students with immediate feedback on their peers’ opinions, get them to think more deeply about an issue, and may even prompt them to revise their views once they’ve heard other points of view.
  3. Involve students in decisions about school policy.Educators are beginning to recognize the value of “student voice” in decision-making, both at the classroom and the school-wide level. Student-voice policies can be structured in a number of ways, including having students lead focus groups, develop surveys, co-design courses with teachers, or take part in actual school governance. At Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, for example, students are involved in the hiring of teachers, the development of curriculum, and the creation and enforcement of school rules. At Vanguard High School in Manhattan, students involved with the Student Voice Collaborative—a group that supports student-led change in New York City—focused on improving student engagement and boosting graduation rates. They ended up recommending students to serve as co-facilitators in the classroom, a proposal that teachers readily accepted. By giving students a voice in determining the conditions of their education, teachers are personalizing school experience and preparing students to make good decisions once they reach adulthood.
  4. Provide opportunities for independent study.Until recently, schools doled out educational content to their students in bite-size portions through the portals of lectures, textbooks, workbooks, slide shows, laboratory experiments, and other highly controlled forms of learning. Now, students have direct access to a whole world of online expertise. We need to provide students with the opportunity to engage in both online and real-world independent study projects that reflect their own interests, learning styles, rates of learning, and other personalized learning factors. At Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vt., students can enroll in Soar, a unique program consisting of independent study, internships, and a weekly seminar where students learn how to set goals, conduct research, and reflect on their learning. And at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., students participating in a program called the Independent Project create their own curriculum and engage in learning of their choice, including traditional academic pursuits in addition to projects like taking flight lessons, writing a novel, and building a kayak.
  5. Offer more electives.Increasingly, states are requiring students to go through some version of a mandatory college preparatory curriculum to graduate, usually involving four years of English and math and three or more years of science and social science. This trend continues to gain steam, even though some research indicates that it doesn’t really improve learning or heighten student engagement. What it does do is leave less room for students to choose courses that interest them and could actually help them decide on a career, a hobby, or a lifestyle they’d like to pursue in adulthood. One solution to this problem is for schools to institute a rigorous academic program and, at the same time, offer a wide range of electives. In a single year, Pelham Memorial High School in Pelham, N.Y., which is a high-performing school with a rigorous college preparatory program added 17 electives to its class schedule, offering options such as jewelry-making, ceramics, photography, broadcast production, military history, and human rights.

Personalized learning is about more than just asking students what their needs and interests are or providing ready-made instructional materials and experiences customized to their particular profiles. Learning becomes truly personal when the students themselves take charge of their own learning. This is especially true at the middle and high school levels when students are most likely to disengage emotionally from classroom instruction strategies that fail to resonate with their growing sense of autonomy.

Secondary school classrooms will become places that truly contribute to the optimal development of a student’s full potential when educators recognize the important changes going on in the adolescent brain; when they address the motivational factors in a teen’s surging emotions (where the thinking is “if it’s not ‘cool,’ it’s not for me”), and when they sensitively cultivate the identity-formation regions of the student’s prefrontal cortex through personalized teaching strategies. In this way, educators can truly light up their students’ brains for success in school and beyond.

 Thomas Armstrong has been an educator for the past 40 years. He currently writes and speaks to school districts and associations around the world, and is the author of 16 books, including his most recent, The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (ASCD, 2016).

  1. Promote Positive Beliefs about Ability

 According to self-worth theory, a preoccupation with ability status is the central, oppressive reality of much of school life and must be dealt with constructively if the will to learn is ever going to be promoted. This cannot be done by just dismissing the importance of ability or ignoring individual gifts. Far from minimizing the importance of ability, teachers must actively promote implicit theories of ability, but theories that are conducive to sustained motivation (p. 147).

The key is to view ability as a form of strategic planning (Covington, 1986; Resnick, 1987). Static capacity gives way to a more animated, plastic view of ability as a repertoire of skills that can be improved and expanded through instruction and experience – the so-called incremental perspective. Those students who embrace an incremental view of ability are more likely to focus on the task at hand, display greater involvement, and are less preoccupied with learning as a test of their worth compared with students who hold an entity view.

It is this incremental view of intelligence that must be fostered in schools not to discourage peer comparisons, which are inevitable anyway, but rather to strengthen student beliefs about the true, multidimensional, dynamic nature of human talent. Doing this means providing students with evidence of their own intellectual growth through time.

Mentor programs in which older children tutor younger ones offer an excellent vehicle for gaining the proper perspective, especially if teachers encourage mentors to compare their own, presently more sophisticated understanding of school subjects with that of their young charges, who, like the mentors themselves in an earlier day, are now struggling to learn. The difference between the first efforts of the novice and later secure knowledge represents more than just differences in age; these differences are largely the product of accumulated knowledge.

Demonstrating progressive intellectual growth need not involve only comparing oneself with others. Students can also be encouraged to gauge self-improvement against their own past by reintroducing the same problem from time to time so that students can judge for themselves how much better and more sophisticated their reasoning is now than before. This will allow an appreciation of their own mental growth and a realization that, although day-to-day intellectual gains are rarely obvious, they do accumulate and lead eventually to entirely new forms of thought and perspective (p. 149).

  1. Improve Teacher-Student Relations

With competitive learning students and teachers are pitched as adversaries in a no-win situation. The authority of teachers to control student achievement is severely limited, their only power being the power to cajole, reprimand, and punish; whereas students can only disrupt or avoid learning, not change the basic causes of their frustration and fear. Neither teachers nor students are to blame, but rather together they are caught up in a contest that neither can win, and teachers are helpless to change things so long as the dominant classroom incentive structure remains failure-oriented. However, by promoting a condition of motivational equity, the rules of the game will change so that power is shared by both teachers and students.

Many teachers are wary of sharing power and fear losing control of their classroom. However the results of several studies have shown teachers the ways in which they and their students antagonize one another. Alschuler (1975) and his colleagues trained the staff and student body of a large urban junior high school to analyze the disruptive dynamics of the “discipline game.” This exercise eventually led to a mutual spirit of experimentation in which individual teachers and their students set about establishing new rules so that teachers could teach more and students had more freedom to learn on their own.

Most often such restructuring involved setting time aside with what Alschuler called – “mutual agreed learning time” – during which teachers had their students’ undivided attention. Similar restructuring, with equally positive results – this time among high school dropouts and migrant workers – has been reported by Arthur Pearl (see Silberman, 1970, p. 346).

As a group these five guidelines represent the essence of the paradigm shift in thinking about school learning and motivation. But what might these changes look like in practice with all these guidelines joined and operating together in harness? Examples are needed (p. 150).