The focus of this SEAL-focused e-bulletin is motivation; specifically, how to engage with students who appear disengaged and less resilient within the learning context. Tina Rae reminds practitioners that motivation is a two-way process between the teacher and the student, and offers strategy ideas for improving it through communication to raise self-esteemdoc-7806472

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Much has been written on the topic of motivation and there are many publications which purport to offer full-proof strategies for teachers and those engaged in the learning process. It can be argued, however, that making use of a series of top tips or gimmicks in order to motivate young people is rather simplistic and not always appropriate. For example, we need to carefully consider our use of praise and whether or not individual students genuinely respond to the kind of praise that we tend to offer to them − some individuals are simply not motivated by this.

It is also important to consider how well the usual tips work – such as giving ‘high-profile’ responses, negotiating private challenges, maintaining familiar routines, surprising students – when actually, taken together, such strategies make no sense whatsoever. In fact, they often contradict each other. What we do need to be aware of is how students actually learn, how they engage in the learning process, and how different teaching styles meet the needs of each individual learning stance.

Misbehaviour is basically a function of poor motivation, and motivation is a two-way process between the teacher and the student. McLean (2009) describes motivation as ‘the ability to cope with setbacks, adversity, pressure and power’. He describes engaged students as expressing their voice and taking the initiative, and trying to produce changes in their environment. They have a sense of being in control of their learning and the learning context. Disengaged students, on the other hand, allow external forces to control their level of engagement and motivation. In order to really understand what motivates young people, and how to maintain motivation in the classroom, there needs to be a shift away from behaviour modification and punishment towards actually understanding the individual’s needs, goals, aspirations and feelings.

Emotional intelligence
We know that there is a direct link between emotional intelligence and achievement. According to McLean (2009), emotional intelligence seems to come into play when the demands of the situation outweigh a student’s intellectual resources. Teachers need to be sure that they can and do influence a students’ ability to make use of their emotional intelligence in order to avoid future setbacks. Students who have a fixed view of their own intelligence and abilities are particularly sensitive to failure. They tend to react defensively by withdrawing themselves from learning or not putting any effort in. They need to be reminded that their brain is actually a muscle and that it gets stronger the more it is used.

Similarly, while making sense of their progress they tend to focus on their fixed ability, and therefore don’t develop the motivational resilience that they need in order to make further progress. Optimistic students, by contrast, are more likely to think of things in terms of effort: for example, ‘I did well because I worked hard’. When they are faced with failure they will tend to look for ways to improve through more work or effort. For the pessimistic, low emotional-intelligence level students, however, there will be a tendency to regard poor performance as being directly linked to low levels of ability. For example, ‘I can’t do this because I’m thick/stupid’ as opposed to ‘I can do this if I ask for support and I am taught in a way that suits me’ and ‘I can also do better by putting more effort in.’

Categorising students
Ordinarily speaking, it is possible to categorise the majority of students as follows:

  • Resilient students who are conscientious, high in emotional stability and open to experience
  • Impulsive, under-controlled students who tend to be disagreeable extroverts who lack conscientiousness and emotional stability
  • Cautious, over-controlled students who can show levels of emotional stability and extroversion but tend to be conscientious and agreeable introverts.

What is important in the learning context is that all such students have their basic needs of affiliation, agency and autonomy met. Self-esteem is key here as it energises, and is energised, through a sense of affiliation in the classroom. Self-belief is something that comes from a sense of agency, and self-determination is built on a positive exercising of autonomy. Simply speaking, students need to feel that they belong, that they are part of the learning context and that they have some control over it. There is a direct link between the level of control that students experience, and therefore the level of involvement they have in planning their own learning programmes, and the motivation and engagement they display.

The motivational teacher
The motivational teacher is basically someone who is dynamic and flexible and energises the student regardless of their personality or learning styles. Key to this is the ability to be flexible and not hold the reins so tightly that it takes away a students sense of responsibility and autonomy. Motivational teaching shares responsibility with the students and involves motivating feedback. For example, students should be praised for their effort and the way that they tackle work as this makes them feel responsible for, and in charge of, their own success. Also helpful is encouraging students to become aware of the manner in which they have been clever or smart as opposed to simply pointing out that they are – this is essential as it allows for the downplaying of teacher evaluation. For example, a motivating teacher would say ‘How original is that thought, you really have worked on this and in a way that is quite unique and shows just how clever you are in your approach’ as opposed to ‘Aren’t you a clever person, look at you you are so intelligent.’ The idea here is to encourage students to rate themselves as much as possible.

The key rules
The key rules for motivating students need to be continually reflected upon. These are not, in any sense, top tips. It is important to remember this and also remember the fact that all teachers have a responsibility to reflect upon their own mindsets, motivation and motives, and how these influence their own teaching styles. Motivational teachers should, however, consider the following basic rules:

  • Engage the students by showing that we genuinely care and value them
  • Provide appropriate levels of structure within the learning context, showing that you trust students to design and evaluate their own learning tasks and processes
  • Show the students that you actually do enjoy teaching them – they’ll certainly know if you don’t
  • Always provide appropriately positive and critical feedback showing that you believe in what the students are doing and how they are approaching their tasks whilst also being available to support them in developing further strategies
  • Always model the behaviour that you are looking for from students in the learning context
  • Affirm the students’ own ability to plan and organise their work
  • Ensure that you attune yourself to how the students are feeling and respond appropriately. If someone is down and withdrawn then you need to be sensitive and empathic ensuring that the learning task is appropriately differentiated to suit them on that particular day
  • Make sure that what you are actually delivering in the classroom is motivating in itself. Ask the students if you are not sure and if it isn’t motivating then re-design and change it
  • Provide a sense of control within the classroom by remaining flexible and not colluding, crushing or coercing individuals
  • Always ask questions about how the students are actually experiencing the learning. Do this on a regular and on-going basis to ensure continual feedback and opportunities to reflect, evaluate and change the learning context
  • Use an open style of questioning as this promotes discussion. It also models and encourages appropriate self-disclosure
  • Actively listen to students – what is it that they are saying? Ensure that you take the right meaning from them
  • Use paraphrasing to send back the meaning you’ve taken from what was said – this clarifies for the student that you really do understand where they are coming from and this in itself can be motivating
  • Be interested in what the students talk about and say to you. If you are not interested in their views they will feel and know it instinctively – nothing is more demotivating
  • Encourage the students to be optimistic and focus upon ways in which they can improve as opposed to any deficits that they may have
  • Always encourage them to label and express their feelings and communicate what motivates them to you
  • Always negotiate and treat the students with respect so that they can agree upon goals for themselves, which can then be re-negotiated as appropriate.

Ask the students
The motivational teacher is someone who is never frightened to seek feedback from the students, and to act upon it, in order to ensure that the learning context is truly inclusive and engaging. It can be very helpful to conduct a survey or produce a questionnaire in order to illicit students’ views – what is it for them that makes a teacher motivational? Ask the following questions:

  • Does the teacher enjoy teaching us?
  • Does the teacher get to know me as a person?
  • Do they make me feel that I belong?
  • Do they help me sort things out when I’m upset?
  • Can we have a laugh with them?
  • Do they treat us with respect?
  • Do they make sure we know what we are supposed to be doing?
  • Do they make the lessons really interesting and fun?
  • Do they help us to develop our own interests and talents?
  • Can we choose how to do our work?
  • Do they make us feel confident to tackle harder work?
  • Do they tell us that there are many different ways to do well in life?
  • Do they let us have a say in what goes on in this room?
  • Are they fair?
  • Are they clear about the rules and consistent in the way in which they apply them?
  • Do they encourage us to learn and use our initiative?
  • Do they praise our achievements which are not related to academic work?
  • Do they show us how mistakes are a helpful way to learn?
  • Do they encourage us to work out what we are learning? How we are doing it and how much we have learnt?

Feedback from such questions can be enormously helpful in terms of enabling individual teachers to reflect upon their practice. What is it that they need to do differently in order to engage all the students in their classes? Are there particular groups of students who feel more alienated and less empowered and motivated? If so what is it that they need to do in terms of changing approaches and modifying both their behaviour and the delivery of the curriculum?

As stated earlier, motivation is a two way process and students can have a significant impact on teacher morale. McLean (2009), however, would like us to move away from questions such as ‘What kind of child do we want?’ to ‘What kind of pupils do we have and how can we best guide them towards self-determination?’ This is something that I fully concur with. For him, our schools’ most important goal is to encourage the students to be who they want to be and not who we think that they ought to be. This is the secret of the truly motivational teacher.

Further references and resources

  • Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The exercise of control New York: Freeman
  • Brophy, J. (2004) Motivating students to learn (2nd ed) Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
  • Caprio, M.W. (1993) Cooperative learning – the jewel among motivational-teaching techniques Journal of College Science Teaching, 22, 279-281
  • Dornyei, Z. (2001) Motivational strategies in the language classroom Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Kember, D., & Kwan, K. (2000) Lecturers’ approaches to teaching and their relationship to conceptions of good teaching Instructional Science, 28, 469-490
  • Luce, R. (1995) Whips, chairs, and other motivational teaching tools OATYC Journal, XX, 29-33
  • Malouff, J., Rooke, S., & Schutte, N. (in press) Simple strategies academics can use to help students improve their writing skills American Psychological Association Observer
  • Malouff, J., & Schutte, N. (2007) Activities to enhance social, emotional and problem-solving skills: Seventy-six activities that teach children, adolescents, and adults skills crucial to success in life Springfield, IL: Thomas
  • McKeachie, W.J. (Ed). (1999) McKeachie’s teaching tips (10th ed) Boston: Houghton Mifflin
  • McLean, A. (2009) Motivating Every Learner London: Sage Publications
  • Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2002) Motivational interviewing: Preparing people to change (2nd ed) New York: Guilford
  • Motivating students (n.d.) Retrieved December 20, 2007
  • Rogers, C.R. (1982) Education – A personal activity In J. Elliott-Kemp & C. Rogers (Eds) The effective teacher: A person-centered guide Sheffield: Pavik
  • Wlodkowski, R.J. (1993) Enhancing adult motivation to learn San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

About the author: Tina Rae, a senior educational psychologist in the London Borough of Hillingdon and the emotional literacy co-ordinator for Chantry SEBD school in West Yiewsley. Tina has extensive experience of teaching, research, programme development and consultancy across the country