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Six Levels of Motivation in Students

I just met a junior from Miami University in Ohio. He was like so many others I meet: full of potential, but lacking clear ambition about a career. It’s not so much because he lacks a vision; it’s because he has twenty visions for his future, and it has paralyzed him from taking clear steps toward his future. Others, who act like him on the outside, lack motivation for other reasons. Carnegie Mellon University published the results of a study revealing why a disproportionate amount of college students today aren’t as motivated as they need to be. The top reasons were:

  • Students see little value in the course or its content.
  • Students do not believe that their efforts will improve their performance.
  • Students are demotivated by the structure and allocation of rewards.
  • Students do not perceive the classroom climate as supportive.
  • Students have other priorities that compete for their time and attention.
  • Individual students may suffer from physical, mental, or other personal problems that affect motivation.

Sadly, the number of unmotivated students is rising. In a world of unprecedented opportunity and connection—wouldn’t you think we’d have the most motivated generation of kids in the history of mankind? We’ve pushed them to succeed at every level: at school, in sports, and every other extracurricular activity.

But alas, many students are perceived as “unmotivated.”

Student Achievement vs. Motivation

A series of papers from the Center of Educations Policy (CEP) at George Washington University reveals that educators have focused far more on student achievement—i.e. getting test scores up—than on student motivation. Regrettably, this pushes schools to only measure test scores, and, hence, do whatever it takes to get those scores up—even if that means cheating. (Inflated scores have been posted dozens of times over the years in K-12 education).

Let’s face it: we’re pragmatic. Our strategies to boost student achievement don’t address the real problems of their disengagement. As Forbes noted, “Upwards of 40 percent of high school students are chronically disengaged from school, according to a 2003 National Research Council report on motivation.”

The decline in motivation is a pressing and tangible problem.

So what’s the solution? I believe instead of student achievement, we should target student motivation. If they are motivated, they should naturally achieve. An inspired student, passionate about what he or she is learning, is pushed from the inside out, not vice versa. Plus, I’m not sure teachers can compete with Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat when it comes to engaging students. We don’t have the budgets to compete with such sources of entertainment. We’ve got to dig deeper into the core of what drives people—especially young people—to take initiative.

Six Levels of Motivation in Students

Yesterday, I blogged about changing the questions we ask students about their future. When we try to help them identify what they want to do with their life, I believe we’ve unwittingly asked them some pretty self-absorbed questions. Pause and think about the students you know who ARE motivated. I believe the following levels of motivation are in effect for those students. Let’s take a look:

  1. I get to do something.

The best learning doesn’t take place while sitting in a classroom. Motivation rises in students when we enable them to get up and do something with their hands and minds. They must apply their knowledge. We truly learn what we do.

  1. I get to do something interesting to me.

Next, students engage more deeply when their “doing” intersects with an area of curiosity. The good news is—we can enable this curiosity when we teach well. Steve Jobs said, “The only way to do good work is to love what you do.” It must be kindled.

  1. I get to do something interesting, using my gifts.

The third level of motivation involves empowering students to utilize their specific strengths. Don Clifton wrote, “When we studied them, excellent performers were rarely well rounded. On the contrary, they were sharp.”

  1. I get to do something interesting, using my gifts with people I enjoy.

Because humans are social beings, learning can be accelerated by social integration. Growing in a community is deeply satisfying. In short, we tend to like people who like us and who are like us. We learn best when friends make us better.

  1. I get to do something interesting, using my gifts with people I enjoy, that solves a problem.

The element of problem solving further engages and motivates students. We are, in our best nature, problem solvers. It’s what good leaders do; it’s what engages people the most. It’s even better when the problem is real, not hypothetical.

  1. I get to do something interesting, using my gifts with people I enjoy, that solves a problem regarding something that matters.

The ultimate engagement surfaces when the problem is important. For years, I’ve believed that students want to do something that’s very important and almost impossible. The larger the challenge, the higher the engagement. People are better when the stakes are high.

Although our students are still maturing, adding any or all of these elements above naturally works to inspire them internally rather than nag them externally. When we practice them well, author Donald Clifton reminds us we will see a signal in our students: They will anticipate it, and will be asking, “When can I do this again?”

Isn’t this the dream of every educator?


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