We define motivation as the force that moves us in a particular direction. In learning, motivation is the force that moves a person to learn.
To picture this force, I’d like to invite you to think of a time when you really enjoyed learning. That class, that teacher, those classmates. Remember? There was something special in that setting that really made you want to be there and do the work. What was it? Can you visualize it? Can you name it? (Can’t picture it? Think of any other setting that you were or are part of, a group, where you felt really good at, you loved being/going there, and ask yourself the same question). Write your answer down.
In general, the following is the winning formula to motivate someone to learn:
a good student-teacher and student-student relationship +
engaging material +
These, most probably, the same factors you encountered when analyzing your own experience. Let’s delve a bit in each of these operands.
A good student-teacher and student-student relationship.
As intuitive as it may look, most adults are not aware of the importance of this factor. At school like in parenting, having a good teacher-student relationship is key to student motivation and success. Why? Because when a person feels seen, respected, capable and considered by another person, they tend to feel good, inspired and motivated to interact and produce for this person. Therefore, students too, when felt seen, respected, capable and considered by their teachers, they’ll tend to be more motivated to learn, invest and grow.
In a teachers’ daily life, one can find plenty of opportunities to build good relationships with their students. This will demand some extra effort and time, yes, yet like with parenting, it is important to understand that this extra time is much, much lower and less stressful than the amount of time needed to fix all the array of problems that arise in a classroom due to lack of motivation. It’s a small investment now, to harvest the beautiful fruits of motivation, and prevent the need for a huge investment later on.
Let’s take a look now at some specific ways to build those good student-teacher relationships.
Invest time to get to know your students, their life, their interests, their passions and their struggles. The most efficient way to do this, is by sharing with them about your life (in a school appropriate manner) and then allowing for opportunities for your students to share theirs. When you share with your students about your own personal life, you are building an atmosphere of safety and exchange, and your students will feel tempted to share with you too.
Invest time, every day, to keep discovering what goes on in your student’s life. Do it again, and again, by sharing about your life and creating opportunities for your students to share too.
Listen. Really listen and be genuinely interested in your students’ feelings. Be empathic (you don’t need to agree) and show real interest for their stories.
Play. Find the time to connect through unstructured activities. Those are the most efficient ways to connect.
Use humor. Humor can get you out and prevent you from, entering the most volatile situations. Trading accusing sentences for silly ones, prevents power fights and escalation. “Samy, is this really what you think is best right now? ;) — (adding the silly face and a silly tone of voice to your sentence). “Cindy?!” :) (silly face and silly tone added again). Asking a silly question with a silly face and a silly tone of voice when in a difficult situation, can do wonders.
Invite your students to help you as much as possible. Doing together is a big part of successful relationships.
Allow your students with plenty of opportunities to show themselves that they can. That they are capable human beings.
Remember that your students, as well as you and me, are unique people. All with a different lifestyle and story. They are the result of that story and none of what they do, is done for the sake of hurting. There’s always a sad reason for undesirable behavior.
Because we are all unique, comparing students would be like comparing bananas to wheels. Don’t do it.
When you ask for your students’ opinion, make sure that you take it. If you are not willing to accept their opinion/solution, refrain from asking.
Let’s now take a look at the student-student relationships, since these are also crucial for student motivation.
To learn, a person needs to be emotionally available, and feeling safe and belongingness, are crucial aspects for this availability. It is very important then to invest time and resources for the students to get to know each other and develop healthy relationships with one another. When this happens, there’s less bullying, more empathy, more cooperation and a better general classroom atmosphere. All these will lead to a higher motivation to learn. Make sure then, that you also invest time daily to promote these relationships. You can use small groups, ice breakers, projects, challenges and many other activities to achieve this.
There’s no doubt about the fact that the more engaging the learning material is, the higher the motivation to learn will be, yet we all know that not always all materials are interesting enough for all students. There will always be someone who is not drawn to the subject being taught. That’s when your magical powers have an opportunity to kick in.
Invite in particular those less interested students, to be your helpers for the subject. Give them a special task, make them responsible for a small group, allow them to be the presenters, brainstorm with them on ways to teach the next challenging subject in a more student friendly way. Ask for their opinion and have them be a part of the decisions and the presentation.
Feedback is a great motivator. Remember how well you felt the last time someone gave you positive feedback about your effort? We all like to feel seen and recognized for our effort, even if it didn’t necessarily bring to results. The effort is what really counts.
When given correctly, feedback has the power to empower and motivate, so always show the half glass full, the walk already walked, and give hope, plenty of hope. It is this hope and the image of progress what motivates a person to keep on going.
Motivating your children to learn when you are not the teacher.
Let’s now say you are a parent or caregiver, but not the teacher. How can you motivate your child to learn?
If you see your child unmotivated and not performing satisfactorily at school (or virtual school), your first step should be talking with your child. Ask them: “If you had a magic wand, what would you change about school?” You’ll be amazed to see how much information one can get when asking this question if there’s a good relationship between the parts. Once you have this information, see if there’s something you can do to help. If you can’t, approach your child’s teacher and share the challenge with them. Most probably, you’ll find a partner in your child’s teacher.
Besides the challenges directly related to school, which the teacher has control over, a child can be not motivated to learn due to circumstances not related to school itself.
If your child is learning from home, or the problem is with homework only, consider their surroundings. A younger sibling playing with their parent/caregiver close to the student, or a very interesting view from the window can definitely be huge distractors. If possible, your child should have an inviting, dedicated place to do their school work, where they are somehow isolated from the distractions of the home.
Also, emotionally challenging situations like health challenges or tension between the students’ parents can definitely thwart a students’ motivation to learn. Take a second and zoom out. Objectively observe the different dynamics that are happening at your home and try to identify any of them that could be interfering with your child’s motivation to learn.
Humans are intrinsically motivated to learn and grow, yet the different life situations and environments negatively affect this potential. Working to provide students with favorable environments is key to maintain and develop their motivation to learn.