Few things concern teachers more than student motivation. The degree to which students are invested and engaged in classroom activities is basic to their success. We may sometimes talk of “unmotivated students,” but the truth is, every student is motivated. Every student attends to and puts effort into something—it just isn’t always the things we plan. If we want students to focus attention and energy on the curriculum (as opposed, say, to finding new ways to access a cell phone without being noticed, or planning fantasy football trades), they will need motivation to do it.
Researchers categorize motivation in different ways. Probably the most familiar categories are intrinsic motivation (motivation driven by valuing the task itself) and extrinsic motivation (motivation that is driven by rewards). In schools, we tend to think of these as finding joy in learning versus learning in order to get a reward—a sticker, a smiley face, or an A. In truth, life in school is not that simple. If our goal is intrinsic motivation such that students enjoy each task, every minute of the school day—well, that’s probably not realistic.
To promote learning for understanding, we need to think about motivation in more complex ways. Intrinsic motivation happens when tasks are enjoyable, but motivation for learning must be more than that. Think about the circumstances when you learned something because you wanted to. Maybe you were learning to drive, to speak another language, or to play an instrument. Not all the tasks on the way to your goal may have been enjoyable—learning how to engage a clutch, speaking hesitanty, twisting your fingers into new awkward positions on an instrument, or practicing scales. But for many of us, we were motivated continue to do these things because we valued the knowledge and skills we were gaining. Technically, this is not intrinsic motivation (at least by most definitions), because we did not choose to play scales or drive down the road with the clutch jerking because these activities were fun, or motivating in and of themselves. We did them because they led to a goal that had value to us.
This sense that learning has value, and the choice to pursue it, is what Brophy terms “motivation to learn,” and it combines with intrinsic motivation in the Creativity in the Classroom model. In this case, the motivation we seek doesn’t necessarily mean students will always feel, “this is fun, I love this activity” but they may also feel, “I’m learning” or “I’m really getting better at this.” This kind of motivation helps students press forward when the activity isn’t their favorite, because they value the learning. If you think about the role of persistence in any creative activity, you can understand how both types of motivation are essential.
Of course we also want students to experience joy in learning—and sometimes, school activities should be so engaging that students will pursue them just for the joy. But both aspects of motivation, the affect (This is so much exciting I want to do more!) and the cognitive (Look at how much I’ve improved!) are important for creativity and learning. Helping students find both is one of the great challenges of teaching.
Brophy, J. (2010). Motivating students to learn. 3rd Ed. New York: Routledge.
Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67