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The Motivation to Learn: What Inspires It?

Written by Stephanie Ingraham | Fri, Nov 17, 2017 @ 06:06 PM

Have you ever wondered what motivates students to learn something new, especially when the subject or material might be rather complex or difficult? What helps students stay focused, engaged, excited, and diligent? According to data gathered from various schools and grade levels, there are three major areas that impact a student’s likelihood to stay motivated and tackle complicated subject matter.

 Hands down, the number one thing that students claim makes a difference in their motivation is the investment and care from the teacher or tutor. This is especially essential when the material is more difficult than usual or likely to overwhelm certain students or create stress. When teachers have high expectations, this sends the message they believe that, though the material might be advanced or the assignment might be lengthy, they fully believe their students are capable of success. This also sends the message to students that the teacher cares about the content herself and finds it useful or interesting, and that she herself had to tackle such complex material at a certain point, which further inspires students to go forward with the learning process. (Shout out to all the fantastic teachers out there doing this!)

A second factor in maintaining motivation is integrating subjects and linking the learning process to something relevant and relatable. EduTopia agrees that students learn best when subjects like math, science, and history, for example, are linked together and applied to one another, rather than taught in isolated fragments. They also stay motivated when they feel that what they are learning is not only engrossing but purposeful, when it applies or somehow connects to the world in which they inhabit. When I was in college, my algebra teacher always required us to study the mathematicians and scientists who developed our formulas and theorems. He then explained how certain theorems were at work right this very moment, for example the formulas used when Apple was creating the very first iPod! This made learning demanding equations more exciting and enriching. It gave us something to talk about. I certainly never looked at my devices the same. When students are asked to create projects that integrate across their curriculum and prove relevance to the culture of today, they are especially likely to put forth maximum effort and stay engaged with the class.

A final factor in inspiring students, as encouraged by Annie Murphy of the website mindshift.com is to challenge them to “beat,” even in very minuscule ways, their personal best. This does not mean they have to actually do this in order to be successful! We all have ebbs and flows with our assessments while in school, but studies show that when a student has a benchmark and an opportunity to go beyond a previous accomplishment, they are more likely to put forth the necessary investment and care than if the grade or outcome didn’t matter at all. Good examples of this are scoring a bit higher on a test, developing a stronger thesis statement for a paper, explaining a scientific theorem more clearly and accurately, expanding upon a project in new and creative ways that maybe weren’t assigned, meeting with the teacher, fellow students, or family members to discuss the material and have a thoughtful discussion about what everyone is learning, or even taking better notes in class to support a final assignment. When one feels motivated to go above and beyond their own previous achievements, they are likely to feel enthusiastic and determined, which makes for the best recipe of a student!

Increasing and maintaining motivation and drive fall on both the teachers and the students, as well as families and communities, but when we can see ourselves as human beings who were made to learn and grow and thus cater to these areas that nurture learning and growth, we are unstoppable!

In addition, I recommend you go here to TeachHub for more resources on how to motivate students and create energy and enthusiasm in your classroom!

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

About the Author

Stephanie Ingraham is a former English teacher turned writer and tutor with a BA in English from UCLA and a Masters in Education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about education, psychology, child and adolescent development, literature, and writing. She believes the education world can benefit greatly from the meditation world - mindfulness and self-compassion are key! In her free time she loves reading and writing, music, baking, yoga, dance, animals, and exploring new cities. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.