The Missing Link in School Reform: Student Motivation

Funding, policies, and regulations can only go so far. Without a desire to learn, America's students will continue to stagnate. 

MOTIVATION-body.jpgReuters

Amid the dizzying crush of school improvement efforts -- federal incentive grants, new regulations for teacher evaluations, proposals to raise state curriculum standards -- how often do you hear discussion about student motivation as a factor in academic achievement?

A new report from the Center on Education Policy suggests student motivation is a potential missing ingredient in campus improvement, and that it deserves more attention from educators, parents, community organizations, and policymakers.

In examining a wide swath of research, CEP found some common themes among initiatives that were successful as well as those that fell short of expectations, said Alexandra Usher, a senior research assistant at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank and the report's lead author.

"It's important to remember that we haven't found the magic answer to how to motivate all students," Usher told me. "But what we do know could help guide policy decisions."

Schools nationwide are experimenting with initiatives aimed at boosting student motivation, incorporating new programs aimed at piquing their interest or helping them feel more connected to the material they are being taught. In some instances, and not without controversy, schools have resorted to outright bribery, offering students cash and other rewards in exchange for greater effort and achievement.

Opponents argue such tactics only undercut the intrinsic value of acquiring knowledge, and send educators wading into ethically murky waters. But supporters say tapping into a student's extrinsic motivation -- to complete a task not for its own sake but because of the result it will produce -- is the only way to reach some unenthusiastic learners.

The CEP report's findings make it clear that these initiatives are having mixed results. There's also a dearth of evidence about whether there are long-term benefits to students. Despite the uneven outcomes, the research does reinforce a key message: Even the best school, program, and teacher can't make a dent in improving academic achievement when a student isn't motivated to learn.

There are several elements to motivating students successfully, and as more of these triggers are activated, an initiative becomes more likely to work, Usher said. Not surprisingly, if students see a direct connection between what they are learning and their own interests and goals, they are likely to be more motivated. Additionally, how schools are organized, and how teachers teach, are all factors in student motivation.

Programs that were found to be successful at boosting student motivation include some alternative education programs that incorporate community service into the curriculum, as well as those that encourage students to be more independent thinkers. The studies have also found that when students are motivated, they demonstrate a better grasp of the subject matter, have higher self-esteem, and are more likely to graduate.

But there's still much researchers have to learn about how motivation works, and how to best foster it in the school setting. As one example of an initiative that missed the mark, Usher pointed to a wealthy philanthropist who promised a class of sixth graders he would pay their college tuition.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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