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Student motivation seems more difficult to generate today than in the past. At least in part, we can blame the pandemic. Students found it easier to disengage and become less motivated when they were learning at a distance in makeshift space at home. Many students have brought the habits and routines they adopted at home back into the classroom with them.  


Yet, learning is heavily dependent on motivation. Motivation – commonly defined as interest, readiness, and inclination to learn – is a necessary element for engaging successfully in the learning process. We cannot make students learn. We cannot learn for them. For learning to occur, students must be motivated.  


It’s also true that we play a role in influencing the level and direction of the motivation of our students. We can create conditions that make it more likely that students will choose to be motivated. At times we design experiences that are inherently attractive, so students are more interested and inclined to learn. At other times, we may create conditions that make not learning unattractive, whether by threatening negative consequences that are influential with students or offering rewards that students value enough to do what we want them to do. Of course, there are significant downsides to the use of threats and rewards related to learning in terms of their diminishing effectiveness over time and messaging that learning is not important or valuable enough to invest in without extrinsic influences.  


While efforts to stimulate student interest and readiness for learning are often necessary at the beginning of teaching and learning cycles, if we retain full responsibility for stimulating student motivation, we can leave them dependent on us to get ready to learn. We risk students being unprepared for a world in which they can ill afford to depend on others to stimulate and direct their motivation for learning and work.  


We can tap a far more effective and lasting approach by nurturing the self-motivation of students. Our efforts need to extend beyond our motivating students, to a focus on nurturing their skills and strategies to motivate themselves. When we instill in learners the ability to generate and direct their motivation, we give them a gift that opens a world of potential learning and life success.  


We can start the journey of transforming waiting-to-be-motivated students into self-motivated learners by helping them see that motivation is a choice. Certainly, at times motivation comes easily. When they encounter something that is inherently interesting, becoming motivated is easy to choose.  


However, they can also choose to find something interesting or engaging about issues and tasks that are less inherently compelling. As examples, by connecting a less compelling learning task to an important goal they can transform their attitude from reluctance to commitment. Additionally, they might engage a friend or colleague to learn with them and transform what may have seemed like drudgery into a pleasant social experience.  


Most students do not realize or appreciate the power they possess to motivate themselves. Fortunately, self-motivation – like other skills – can be taught. However, it requires our commitment and support to nurture its development and application. Here are ten ideas to get started: 

  • Coach students to set and pursue learning goals. 
  • Coach students to focus on the value of learning over obsessing about grades. 
  • Focus student feedback on factors they control such as effort, strategy, progress, and achievement.  
  • Encourage, stimulate, and nurture student curiosity. 
  • Encourage and support students to celebrate their learning accomplishments.  
  • Provide students with meaningful and authentic choices about how they will engage in learning tasks.  
  • Give students choices about who they will work with on learning tasks. 
  • Coach students to look for connections between new learning tasks and what is interesting to them. 
  • Coach students to explore why they find some tasks inherently more interesting and how they can transfer or leverage that interest to other activities. 
  • Remind students of their power to make choices about their motivation, regardless of circumstance or challenge. 


When students learn to motivate themselves, they tap limitless power to control the level and direction of their energy. Even better, they can summon their motivation on demand. In short, we give them a lifelong, success-generating tool that never wears out.  

Thought for the Week

Finding ways to engage students, increase learning efficiency, and extending recall of what students learn can be a constant quest. Fortunately, designing activities and employing strategies that release the flow of dopamine in our students’ brains can help us to meet this challenge, especially now.

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