Motivated to Learn

Wouldn’t life be some much easier if we could figure out how to inspire student motivation? Are we (as teachers) motivated to teach and to learn?

Deborah Stipek is a professor at Stanford and wrote Motivation to Learn (2001). We talked about her research at the Klingenstein Summer Institute. I think one reason it resonated so strongly with me was it took psychology theory and put it into practice, and explained things that I was seeing in my students.

She gives factors that influence intrinsic motivation:

  1. Need for a sense of competency
  2. Need for sense of self-determination
  3. Need for interpersonal connection
  4. Need for sense of purpose, meaning, or relevance
  5. Interest
Let’s look at the most successful unit I have ever taught: Understanding Systems using SimCity:
  1. Students followed tutorials and saw growth of their cities, and they got frequent feedback from the game to develop their competency.
  2. Students got complete control over their own city.
  3. Many students helped each other – it was rare for the classroom to be quiet – and all the chatter was about the game using the systems vocabulary.  All the chatter was about the game. They were connecting about the project.
  4. This was linked to our yearlong theme of systems and sustainability.
  5. Games are fun – there is a natural interest to seeing what the reaction is to your action.
I don’t have any evidence to back up these claims that this is why the unit was successful, but it makes an awful lot of sense to me. Each kid may not have connected to all five factors, but enough of them connected to a couple. And it jives with what I felt in my classroom.
  1. How do you make your students feel competent? What feedback do you provide? What feedback to they hear?
  2. How do you give them self-determination? What choices do they have? What real choices do they have?
  3. How do you allow them to connect with each other and you?
  4. What purpose or relevance do they see in assignments? (This does not have to be that they are saving the world…)
  5. Are they interested? Are you interested?
Image credit: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, from Hill Holliday’s Blog:

One thought on “Motivated to Learn

  1. JKR,

    You’ve asked a great essential question here, about student motivation and learning. In my experience, motivation for achievement is not a problem with students at independent schools like OES – they often see performance goals as paramount, as the ticket to the dream college. My concern is always whether the performance goals and the learning goals are aligned, such that student motivation is maximized.

    As you know, Dan Pink writes about motivation in his book ‘Drive”, and the research shows us what Dan calls “freaky” insights. In applying those to my classes, I’ve found that replacing the obvious performance goal of “getting an A” with “make a contribution to another person’s learning”, or “leave a legacy”, or “teach another about something you’re interested in”, that student motivation to LEARN, not just perform, goes through the roof. Right now I’m seeing that with our reflection blog assignment in Age of Exploration. The students are going above and beyond because they know an authentic audience will read their work. This is the kind of intrinsic motivation that Professor Stipek writes about, and I think she’s spot on. I’m aiming for it again in an upcoming “contribute to Wikipedia” project.

    I’m convinced that if we can leverage “I Contribute” in creative ways in our classes, that we’ll find deep intrinsic motivation to learn manifests in our students.

    Thanks for another great blog post. Keep up the good work. Cheers.


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