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Five Questions For … CEP’s Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober, On Student Motivation As Missing Ingredient In School Reform

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Center for Education Policy senior research assistant Alexandra Usher and consultant Nancy Kober spoke with EWA about their new report on research studying student motivation, and the role it plays in overall school success.

1. What were some of the common themes among programs that appeared to be successful at motivating students?

Usher: It’s important to note that there’s a great deal researchers don’t know about how motivation works. However, we determined there are four dimensions of motivation (competence, control/autonomy, interest/value, and relatedness) that kept popping up over and over again in the scholarly works. They weren’t called the same thing each time, but they echoed across the studies. That became the basis of what we used as our lens for the project.

Kober: Even though there’s no one thing that will work with all students or even most students, we do know from the research  some things that are and are not effective. There is some basis from which to work.

Any activity is more likely to be motivating if students feel they are competent to complete it, if they feel in control because they see a link between what they’re doing and a desirable outcome, if the task is interesting and they see value in doing it, and if completing the task brings them some sort of social benefit. You don’t need to have all of those factors, but the more of them you have the more likely you’ll come up with a strategy that fosters motivation.

2. Does the success of the initiatives depend on getting students to rethink their own perceptions of themselves?

Usher: The student’s mindset, and how students conceive of intelligence, is certainly a factor in their motivation. Some students decide they are just not smart enough to get an A. Others might not know what steps to take to do well in school. In New York, an experiment paid students for doing well on tests. There was a lot of enthusiasm among the students for the program but there wasn’t a strong increase in test scores. That suggests that building interest with incentives isn’t enough. The students also need support to actually help them achieve those goals.

Kober: There’s also evidence that over-praising students for their innate intelligence, rather than encouraging them when they master specific skills, can hurt motivation.

Usher: There have been studies that show that if a student is praised all the time for being smart, they can actually not try as hard to succeed to protect themselves against failure. If they end up not doing well, they can say it’s because they didn’t try.

3. How important is the student’s home life in determining their motivation to learn, and the effectiveness of the initiatives?

Kober: It’s clear that not all families have the wherewithal to do everything that’s recommended to boost student learning. The question is: how do you help families that don’t have the resources, inclination, educational level or the time to provide extended support? Researchers who study the role of families in student learning have highlighted successful family-school-community collaborations that start working with parents when their children are in preschool. They try to nurture not just academic skills but persistence and curiosity. Those are significant factors in motivation.

4. What surprised you in your findings?

Kober: I was somewhat surprised by some of the things that can have a negative effect on motivation. How parents talk to their children about intelligence, ability, effort and performance all play a role.

For both teachers and parents, it seems to be more effective when they emphasis mastering skills — versus those who say the goal is to reach a certain performance level, or do better than somebody else.

We have a separate paper examining the role of testing in motivation, and the findings are certainly interesting. Some of the lessons don’t jibe with the idea that the higher the stakes, the more motivating the test is for the student. There is a point when students can actually become more discouraged as the stakes increase.

Usher: There was one interesting case study in particular that surprised me. A wealthy philanthropist promised a class of sixth graders to pay for their college educations. You think that would be a huge motivation. But in reality a low percentage of the students were actually able to make it to college and take advantage of the offer. We think of college as a goal to motivate students, but simply saying students should go to college because it’s important isn’t effective unless there’s a counselor to help them choose the required courses, to explain how to apply and fill out applications for financial aid, and other supports in the school and community that create what’s sometimes called a “college-going culture”.

5. What’s the next step for educators, policymakers and community leaders who might use the report to guide implementing a student motivation initiative?

Kober: One of the main reasons we did this report is that the national reform agenda was focusing on addressing the policy framework for broad areas such as curriculum and instruction, and teacher needs and evaluation, but there wasn’t a lot of discussion of the student or the role motivation plays in outcomes.

It’s not just a matter of whether a school has a special program in place to motivate students. It’s also whether they are building into their school reform and professional development policies the things that are shown to be important in motivating students. People also need to be aware of practices that might be inadvertently discouraging.

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