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The Art and Craft of Motivating Students

Giving Students Control

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The Art and Craft of Motivating Students

Children (8-9) raising hands in classroom

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The educational equivalent to "location, location, location," is "motivation, motivation, motivation," for motivation is probably the most significant factor educators can target in order to improve learning.

Teachers routinely attest to the importance of motivating students, lamenting how easily students memorize unending rap songs despite their needing a truckload of teaching tricks to remember directions for a simple assignment.

Considering its importance, surprisingly little advice about how to motivate students is available on the Internet. The most helpful site reviews motivational research. In it Barbara McCombs states that "almost everything [teachers] do in the classroom has a motivational influence on students--either positive or negative. This includes the way information is presented, the kinds of activities teachers use, the ways teachers interact with students, the amount of choice and control given to students, and opportunities for students to work alone or in groups. Students react to who teachers are, what they do, and how comfortable they feel in the classroom." 2

Based on research findings, we now know that motivation depends on the extent to which teachers are able to satisfy students' needs:

  • to feel in control of their learning
  • to feel competent, and
  • to feel connected with others.

How to Give Students More Control

Being in control of their learning means having significant input into the selection of learning goals and activities and of classroom policies and procedures. Knowing that students need to have significant input into decisions about their learning situation does not, however, simplify the task of meshing what, when, how, and where students want to learn with mandated content and objectives, the school's schedule, and the teacher's room assignment.

Fortunately, research suggests that students feel some ownership of a decision if they agree with it, so getting students to accept the reasons some aspects of a course are not negotiable is probably a worthwhile endeavor. Then, whenever possible, students should be allowed to determine class rules and procedures, set learning goals, select learning activities and assignments, and decide whether to work in groups or independently.

In addition, while inconsistent with best practice in cooperative learning, allowing students to select learning partners has been shown to improve their motivation to learn. With this, as with other instructional issues, the teacher must continually weigh the benefits of making the "preferred" instructional decision against the motivational benefits of giving students choices among appropriate alternatives.

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