Supporting Students by Understanding What Motivates Them

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Have you ever given thought to what motivates you to do something? Why do you want to write a book? Have a career in education? Order a pizza every Friday night?

Motivation is a state of mind and a “force” that pushes people to action. Understanding the motivation behind one’s action can unlock a wealth of knowledge. Especially when it comes to supporting students.

Motivation Factors

Intrinsic and extrinsic are two motivational factors.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within—you engage in an activity because you enjoy it. It’s an internal motivation that gives you personal satisfaction from doing it, such as achieving a goal or helping others because it feels good.

Extrinsic motivation is from external factors—you do something to gain an external reward such as money or an award. Or it can also be a motivator to avoid a consequence for not completing or doing something.

Theories of Motivation  

Researchers have proposed many different theories of motivation.   

Drive Theory. The Drive Theory believes that people are motivated to take action to reduce internal tension caused by an unmet need. If the body is not in balance, it will react to a biological or physiological need. Thirst, hunger, the need for warmth are all examples of drives. Actions that reduce a need serve as positive reinforcement and conditioning for that behavior. In education, types of reinforcement might include giving praise, allowing student choice, or playing fun games or activities.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. Abraham Maslow’s five-tier pyramid theory believes that needs at the foundation of the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. Basic physiological and safety needs must be met first before psychological needs such as love, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs are achieved. With the proper support, each student can move up in the hierarchy. One way to do this in the classroom is to provide differentiated instruction, and to try to find something that interests each student. Students with a strong sense of belonging are more motivated to learn.

McClelland’s Need Theory. David McClelland believed that needs are learned or acquired by events people experience in their environment and culture. People are motivated by three needs, the need for: Achievement, Power, Affiliation. The dominant need is dependent on your culture and experiences. Using this theory, if you can identify a student’s dominant need, you can use that information to help motivate them in the classroom. For example, a student with the need for affiliation could do very well working in groups. Students with the dominant need for achievement thrive on overcoming difficult problems and need challenging projects.

Learned Helplessness. The concept of learned helplessness is when a person feels like their actions have no impact on their performance. Eventually, they try to avoid taking action and behave as if they have no ability to change the situation. Giving up easily, failing to ask for help, procrastinating, being frustrated are a few ways students may exhibit learned helplessness. You can help address learned helplessness by normalizing failure–for without some failure, we don’t learn. Encourage their effort rather than ability. 

If our goal is to build lifelong learners, we must help unlock the motivation to learn. Fortunately, there are many ideas to improve student motivation. Offer varied experiences, give students responsibilities, encourage self-reflection, make learning fun, create a safe space, know your students–these are a few simple ideas you can implement right now. 

To bring it all together, motivation is the state of mind which pushes all human beings to perform to their highest potential. Understanding the factors and theories that drive motivation can help us not only discover how to best support students, but how to unlock their potential for greater achievement.

If you’re interested in learning more about ASU Prep Teaching Training on fostering student motivation and engagement, please visit