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Is Student Motivation the Missing Link in School Reform?

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Amid the dizzying crush of school improvement efforts — federal incentive grants, new regulations for teacher evaluations, proposals to raise state curriculum standards – how often do you hear discussion about student motivation as a factor in academic achievement?

new report from the Center on Education Policy suggests student motivation is a potential missing ingredient in campus improvement, and that it deserves more attention from educators, parents, community organizations and policymakers.

In examining a wide swath of research, CEP found some common themes among initiatives that were successful as well as those that fell short of expectations, said Alexandra Usher, a senior research assistant at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank and the report’s lead author.

“It’s important to remember that we haven’t found the magic answer to how to motivate all students,” Usher told me. “But what we do know could help guide policy decisions.”

Schools nationwide are experimenting with initiatives aimed at boosting student motivation, incorporating new programs aimed at piquing their interest or helping them feel more connected to the material they are being taught. In some instances—and , and not without controversy, schools have resorted to outright bribery, offering students cash and other rewards in exchange for greater effort and achievement.

Opponents argue such tactics only undercut the intrinsic value of acquiring knowledge, and send educators wading into ethically murky waters. But supporters say tapping into a student’s extrinsic motivation – to complete a task not for its own sake but because of the result it will produce – is the only way to reach some unenthusiastic learners.

The CEP report’s findings make it clear that these initiatives are having mixed results. There’s also a dearth of evidence about whether there are long-term benefits to students. Despite the uneven outcomes, the research does reinforce a key message: Even the best school, program, and teacher can’t make a dent in improving academic achievement when a student isn’t motivated to learn.

There are several elements to motivating students successfully, and as more of these triggers are activated, an initiative becomes more likely to work, Usher said. Not surprisingly, if students see a direct connection between what they are learning and their own interests and goals, they are likely to be more motivated. Additionally, how schools are organized, and how teachers teach, are all factors in student motivation.

Programs that were found to be successful at boosting student motivation include some alternative education programs that incorporate community service into the curriculum, as well as those that encourage students to be more independent thinkers. The studies have also found that when students are motivated, they demonstrate a better grasp of the subject matter, have higher self-esteem, and are more likely to graduate.

But there’s still much researchers have to learn about how motivation works, and how to best foster it in the school setting. As one example of an initiative that missed the mark, Usher pointed to a wealthy philanthropist who promised a class of sixth graders he would pay their college tuition.

“You think that would be a huge motivation – but in reality, a low percentage of students were actually able to make it to college and take advantage of the offer,” Usher said.

There has to be more than just building up the idea of college as a goal, Usher said. The students also needed guidance counselors to help them choose the right courses and to help navigate the application process, along with school and community support to build the “college-going culture.”

The individual student’s mindset is also a factor, Usher said. Some students decide they aren’t smart enough to do well and give up before they even start. Others have the desire, but lack the necessary skills. Some students who are told repeatedly that they are smart will actually make less of an effort, as a way of buttressing themselves against failure, Usher said.

“If they end up not doing well, they can say it’s because they didn’t try,” Usher said.

It’s not enough for a school to propose an initiative to motivate students, said Nancy Kober, a CEP consultant and the report’s co-author. Professional development for teachers and staff, and support programs designed to actually help students meet their goals must also be in place.

At the same time, Kober said, “People also need to be aware of practices that might be inadvertently discouraging.” Those can include parents or teachers praise students for their innate intelligence, rather than encouraging them when they master specific skills, Kober said. Holding up a high-stakes test as the all-important end goal also isn’t as effective as giving students the chance to do well on a succession of tasks that gradually increase in difficulty and importance, Kober said.

Initiatives aimed at boosting student motivation also have to account for the reality that many students do not get the kind of positive reinforcement they need at home, Kober said. Some researchers point to successful programs that start when children are in preschool, and help parents develop their children’s persistence and curiosity — both factors in student motivation, Kober said.

“It’s clear that not all families have the wherewithal to do everything that’s recommended to boost student learning,” Kober said. “The question is: How do you help families that don’t have the resources, inclination, educational level, or the time to provide extended support?”

Walt Gardner, a teacher who spent 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the report’s findings are consistent with his experiences. “When kids see no connection to what they study and what their future plans are, they either drop out or act out,” said Gardner, who writes Education Week’s Reality Check blog.
“Kids will sleep out overnight in the street to get tickets to a rock concert,” Gardner said. “If you show students a connection and a purpose to what they’re doing, the motivation takes care of itself.”