Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Motivating Students

I've had motivation on my mind, in part because of Wednesday's #FYCchat. But a chance conversation on Twitter really started the wheels in my head turning.


Everyone is motivated by different forces. My daughter was potty trained with the reward of M&Ms. My son absolutely refuses to go potty for any other reason than he wants to; no reward we have offered him can motivate him to go potty. Even in my peer-driven classes, I'm having two completely opposite experiences: one class has embraced the opportunity to learn what they wanted while the other hasn't seen it as an opportunity as much as a chore (or so it seems).

We want to master certain skills, like guitar (which, by the way, I never was able to. At all). And, one way or another, we award ourselves unofficial badges, based on which songs we can play. Anyone who plays an instrument knows which songs they aspire to play, and once they play those songs (and often for an audience) they move on to harder songs. I used to swim. I loved swimming for so many reasons, but I also aspired to achieve certain standards set by a external body. In any sport we practice, the idea is to improve, and we know much of the time who is better than we are and aspire to approach or surpass them.

As kids, we always knew who was good, better, and best at anything and everything, from spelling to handwriting to video games to running to everything. Kids know, as Cathy Davidson points out. Taking grades, or badges, or ranking, or anything else isn't going to change. The trick is to then offer kids recognition for what they can do. As much as the people who put together Wikipedia did so for free they also knew that people would read their work, use their work, recognize their work. Super-contributers receive recognition for their contribution, even in a minor way. We might be self-motivated, but it always feels good to receive recognition.

Take my blogging. I started blogging because I love to write and talking about teaching, writing, and higher education. But I'll tell you, I always had an audience in mind, and it feels good that I'm receiving recognition for what I already love to do. Maybe this is because I've been "trained" to want rewards. I don't know, but I spent 13 years swimming competitively even though for the last half, I knew there wasn't any chance of making the Olympics. So, where was my motivation? My rewards were smaller, but no less significant to me. Each of use has looks to be rewarded in different ways.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's #FYCchat because these questions don't have any easy answers. 

1 comment:

  1. There is another thread to the motivation tangle - society and culture need to take their share of the responsibility and not leave all the weight on the individual student. Many years ago I took a grad class on student motivation and was shocked the first night when the prof explained that the class would focus on the macro-causes - society and culture - rather than the micro-causes (student character). That class forever shaped my perspective on motivation. Insiders/outsiders/racism/language barriers/life....
    And another issue is in the pattern of instruction over the years: I have my college reading students write an autobiography of themselves as readers, and consistently they write about how they loved reading til sometime in middle school, when they started to hate it because of the assigned readings. What are we doing that teaches our students to hate to read???

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