An unmotivated student is unlikely to learn much at school. But there’s a wide range of opinions on what parents and teachers can do to create that motivation. In this article, we will talk about what research has to say and how you can instill motivation in your children of all ages.
A team of Canadian and Australian researchers decided to take a scientific approach to this question by analyzing studies from across the world on student motivation. They found 144 studies involving nearly 80,000 students, from elementary school through university. Two conclusions stood out after their in-depth analysis of the research.
First, they found that teachers are far more influential than parents in motivating students to learn. Julien Bureau, lead researcher and author of the study tells The Hechinger Report, “If you want your students to be motivated at school, parents are important but they’re not enough, the teacher has more tools to work with for student motivation.”
The second conclusion is about how to foster the kind of natural motivation that really helps children and adults succeed in school. According to the theory that Bureau explained, the way that teachers and parents influence motivation is indirect, by satisfying three psychological needs. These are competency, belonging, and autonomy.
They found that a sense of competence, or capability, was vital to helping kids feel motivated to learn. A feeling of competence doesn’t mean that students already know how to do something but that they have confidence that they’re capable of learning it. For example, students with a strong sense of competence think that they’ll get better grades if they study or they’ll succeed if they put in the work.
Overall Bureau describes these three needs — competency, belonging, and autonomy — as the light to ignite internal motivation. “If you start doing a task,” he said, “and it’s a new task, and you feel competent in it, and you feel connected with others, and you feel autonomous in doing the task, you’ve chosen to do it. You’ll have fun doing it. You’ll want to do it more. And you’ll be interested in learning.” It’s a cycle of believing you can do it, connecting with others, and feeling self-sufficient in the job you do.
This same theory is apparent in a 2015 report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which focused on building motivation and how children respond to incentives. The psychological and behavioral research in the report found that motivation to learn consists of three things parents and teachers can encourage. The first is how students see themselves as learners or competency. Parents and teachers can foster this by improving their academic mindsets and their ability to achieve the intended outcome. For example, if they have a test coming up you can tell them “you did a great job studying for your last test. You really know how to prepare and see how your hard work pays off.”
The second is what the students see as their place at school or belonging. Parents and teachers can positively encourage this by enhancing their sense of connectedness with their teachers and their peers. Students care when they believe that other people care about them. They are less likely to drop out, and more likely to feel positive about school when they have ongoing connections with teachers. Likewise, when they associate with highly-engaged peers, they become more engaged themselves.
Lastly is how they see the value of their work. Parents and teachers can foster this by emphasizing the value of students’ work. This goes along with the sense of autonomy or independence. Helping students see the value in their schoolwork by connecting concepts to their lives may be a more effective way for teachers to boost student engagement. As a parent, you can help your child by having them set goals for themselves then rewarding their hard work when they achieve those goals. Then as Bureau said, this will lead them to see their capability to succeed and carry over to the next task at hand.
Bureau, J. S., Howard, J. L., Chong, J. X. Y., & Guay, F. (2021). Pathways to Student Motivation: A Meta-Analysis of Antecedents of Autonomous and Controlled Motivations. Review of Educational Research. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543211042426
Headden, S., & McKay, S. (2015). (publication). Motivation Matters: How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Barshay, J. (2021, September 23). Proof points: What almost 150 studies say about how to motivate students. The Hechinger Report: Covering Innovation & Inequality in Education. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://hechingerreport.org/proof-points-what-almost-150-studies-say-about-how-to-motivate-students/.