Searching for the Holy Grail - or how to Motivate my Students

Updated: Dec 17, 2021


For Teachers


#motivation #attribution #selfefficacy #interest #expectancyvaluetheory #selfdeterminationtheory #basicneeds


By Julia Klug


The question how to motivate students is one that keeps us busy. Motivation as an intrapersonal catalyst for turning potential into achievement[1] is such a crucial thing for learning. Research about self-regulated learning and motivation can guide us in how to design our classes in order to enhance students’ motivation.


Motivation in the self-regulated learning cycle

Motivation matters before learning in “crossing the Rubicon”[2] by simply beginning to engage in a task. Setting goals, most-suitably in reachable baby-steps that describe my way to the more distal goal helps me finding and keeping up my motivation.


Whilst learning, keeping up my motivation and resisting temptations of attractive alternatives[3] is necessary to stay engaged in the task. As a self-motivation technique, I could imagine how good it will feel, if I have accomplished the task in the future. I could also think about rewarding myself once I have reached a sub-goal.


After learning, motivation matters again for engaging in following tasks. It depends on my emotions – just to be sure, the positive ones are the ones that are good for motivation – and first and foremost on which causes I see for having been successful or not.


Why did this happen?

Attribution theory[4] postulates that we seek for reasons why we – or others, i.e. our students – have been successful or unsuccessful. Motivation in turn strongly depends on which reasons we assume for our successes or failures. In general, it is helpful to keep up motivation, if we attribute failures to reasons that are variable, meaning that we can change something in our next trial and thus have the possibility to be successful then.


Possible beneficial internal variable attributions could be:

· maybe I didn’t try hard enough – I could take more of an effort next time

· maybe the strategy I used was not the best one – I could try another learning strategy

· maybe I didn’t have enough time – I could plan more time and begin earlier

· maybe my goal was unrealistic – I could adapt it

· maybe I cannot solve the task alone at the moment – I could ask for help

· maybe I did not have a quiet or stimulating environment – I could learn in another one

· …


If we would attribute to stable causes instead, we would not be able to do something about it, and that hinders our motivation. In fact, if we attribute failures to internal stable causes, we could totally lose our self-efficacy or even feel helpless in upcoming tasks.


For successes, it is also good to think about the internal variable causes, in order to maintain the things that worked out well. However, it can sometimes also be good for my self-esteem to affirm myself that I have the necessary abilities. After all, it is important, that the causes we assume are somewhat realistic.


What is particularly important for us as teachers about these attributions, is, that we have a powerful tool for promoting students motivation by giving feedback that considers beneficial attributional styles. We can tell students in our feedback which possible variable causes we see or ask them for their attributions in order to work with them on a more beneficial attributional style, so they will not lose their motivation or self-esteem because of maladaptive attributions.


I think I can do it and I want to do it

Expectancy-value-theory[5] also gives us hints how to promote students’ motivation. It describes motivation as a product of the expectancy that I can manage to do something properly and the value the activity or task has for me. Why is it a product? Both, if one of the two, expectancy or value was “zero”, motivation would be “zero”.


So what can we do about that? For promoting value, we could try to raise students’ interest in the learning themes, by, for example, choosing an exciting beginning, making them curious, showing the relevance of the topic, showing your own fascination, etc.


For promoting expectancy, we could provide them with tasks with various difficulties, beginning with the ones they can master. We could also give feedback using an individual frame of reference and tell that what they are already able to do properly, and, of course, we could refer to a beneficial attributional style.


I want to be free!

Self-determination-theory[6], especially its part about our basic needs, is another motivation theory that can guide us in creating classes in which our students are motivated. It postulates that we have three basic needs that – if fulfilled – motivate us. The good thing is you can easily create classes that provide students with a structure that serves their basic needs, but wait – which are these three magic needs we can address?


They are:

1. The need for autonomy

2. The need for competence

3. The need for social relatedness


We can try to make sure our students feel autonomous, competent and related:

Autonomous for example by giving them choices about topics, about methods, about individual or group work, about classroom organization, etc.

Competent by doing the same things as for promoting their expectancy, i.e. using manageable tasks, applying an individual frame of reference, giving constructive and attributional beneficial feedback, creating a positive error climate, i.e. errors are good and we can learn from them, etc. And related for example by respecting them, being in a good relationship with your students, being aware of relations among students, addressing issues like mobbing preventively, giving tasks that need a team spirit, etc.


In a nutshell

If we want to promote our students’ motivation according to these theories, we can remember:

  • Motivation is relevant to even start engaging in a task and to keep up engaging in it

  • How we evaluate our results is important for our motivation for following tasks

  • We can set goals – together with our students – in reachable baby-steps

  • We can exemplify self-motivation techniques likenvisualizing a success and how good it will feel or setting myself a reward like what I will do, when I’ve accomplishes a sub-goal

  • We can work with positive emotions

  • We can give feedback that promotes a beneficial attributional style and search for causes – together with the student – that are variable and that can be modified or maintained

  • We can provide tasks of various difficulties, especially ones that every student can master

  • We can give feedback that shows what the individual student has already accomplished

  • We can raise interest in and value for the topics and tasks and also make use of existing interests of students

  • We can create a positive error-climate

  • We can give students choices

  • We can respect our students and be in a good relationship with them

  • We can be aware of and promote relations among students and prevent or intervene early in case of troubles


In the end, motivation theories and self-regulated learning can guide us a little on our way to find the Holy Grail to students’ motivation.


[1] Subotnik, R. F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F. C. (2011). Rethinking giftedness and gifted education: A proposed direction forward based on psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(1), 3–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100611418056 [2] Heckhausen, H., Gollwitzer, P.M. & Weinert, F.E. (Eds.) (1987): Jenseits des Rubikon. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. [3] Corno, L. (2013). Volitional aspects of self-regulated learning. In B. J. Zimmerman & D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 179-212). Erlbaum. [4] Weiner, B. (1974). Achievement motivation and attribution theory. Morristown, N.J.: General Learning Press. [5] Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 109–132. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135153 [6] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68


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