Again, today, I’m thinking about motivation, specifically, motivation to learn. Needless to say, teachers hope students will be motivated to learn the content they’ve prepared. There are few things more frustrating than facing a class with a carefully crafted lesson only to be met with indifference. Thinking about what motivates students to learn—and how it relates to other types of motivation, and to creativity, is an interesting–and ongoing–educational puzzle.
According to Wentzel and Brophy, who developed the term, “motivation to learn” can be a generally positive attitude toward learning. People with such a disposition are curious about the world, eager to learn new things—like my friend who is constantly listening to lectures in the car, just for fun. Students who are eager to learn new things can be a joy to have in the classroom—at least as long as the classroom helps them learn.
But not everyone is driven to learn all the time. Perhaps more often, motivation to learn happens moment to moment, in situations in which students find learning meaningful, or see how it can be useful. I’ve been thinking about these ideas as I’ve been trying to analyze when am I motivated to work on learning French, and when, not-so-much.
I think it would be fair to say that I have a generally high motivation to learn. I am curious about lots of things, and genuinely enjoy learning. I love vacations in which I explore new places and learn about cultures that are unfamiliar. But when it comes to my French studies, sometimes I’m anxious to squeeze in a few minutes of French practice, and other times I seem to have a million other things to do instead. Why?
Right now, it seems, there is one key question: Am I actually learning? Not long ago I signed on to a new online learning system, highly recommended by friends. I took the pretest, started doing the lessons, and was quickly bored. The pace was excruciatingly slow and the vocabulary almost entirely familiar. After a few days, I just didn’t want to do it any more. I’ve had the same trouble with another system that keeps telling me I need to go back and review previous units. Now, I understand the need for practice, but if I knew the words for numbers last week, what are the odds I’ve completely forgotten them this week? Slim, I suspect.
After a week or so I thought, “This can’t be the right placement,” retook the pretest for the newer system and scored significantly higher. Sure enough, when I jumped multiple levels, the pace was still slow but I was learning enough new content that I wanted to engage. Of course there are days when my workload is too heavy or my day too packed for me to want to take on additional tasks, but most days, I want to practice French.
The whole experience has made me think, yet again, of the importance of appropriately paced and leveled instruction. It is not just a matter of being able to learn, it is a matter of wanting to learn. If the French app was much too hard and I couldn’t make sense of it, I would not have been motivated, either. If I’m learning (and not overly stressed) I am motivated and happy to learn. If I’m learning, I gain the “grist” with which to be creative.
If you are facing a student whose motivation to learn seems limited, there could be many reasons. But a place to start might be, “Does the instruction match the student’s skill level? Is he or she actually learning, or simply sitting in the appropriate chair?” It matters.
Wentzel, K. R. & Brophy, J. E. (2014). Motivating students to learn. 4th Ed. New York: Routledge.