Motivation in a Standards Based Culture

“The primary reward for learning should be intrinsic – the positive feelings that result from success.  Actual success at learning is the single most important factor in intrinsic motivation.” Ken O’Connor from A Repair kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades


Student apathy…I have heard teachers complain about this countless times.


‘They just don’t want to do anything!’
‘I plead with them…why don’t they want to try?’
‘I make it so easy, I basically give them the answers and they still don’t do anything.’


And the list goes on and on…


The answer to these problems seems simple – motivation.  What are we doing (or not doing) in our classrooms that is creating this culture of apathy and lack of motivation to learn? It is not that our students don’t have motivation to learn in other areas of their lives…take a look at how they play sports, learn musical instruments, or become proficient with new technologies in the blink of an eye. I have several thoughts why this is happening…


School is being done to our students


The action of learning needs to be done by the learner. Our students cannot sit and stagnate in the classroom ‘absorbing’ material and be expected to learn. They must experience, think, problem solve, analyze, and so much more. They must fail, problem solve again, and repeat until solutions are found. They must create, innovate, and make learning their own. The role of the teacher is to facilitate this learning, give feedback for growth, encourage risk taking, and provide guidance along the journey. Instructors and students alike must be engaged and fully involved in the learning process.


Tasks are not respectful


One size fits all education has no place in today’s schools. Our diverse learners deserve so much more from their education and need a place to make their best contributions and show their passion for learning. We need to devise tasks for our students that are respectful to their individual readiness and relevant to their world. I am always reminding myself that my students are adolescents, not mini-adults. They have varied needs, and desire to be understood.


Rewards and grades aren’t helping


“Rewards can deliver a short-term boost – just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off – and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.” From Daniel Pink’s book Drive


Grades when treated as reward or repercussion hinder the motivation of our students. They become the focus rather than a simple reporting mechanism. Intrinsically motivated learners understand that when learning happens, the grades will follow. Once students experience true success in learning – not just a good grade on something, or full points – it breeds more of the same. To unleash the potential of our students, we need to frame the grading conversation differently. Learning, growth, and knowledge are what we seek. Grades take a back seat and are one of many communication tools. Grades don’t have lasting power, they come and go quickly. Learning is for a lifetime.


And to remind you of what Mr. O’Connor says in his book… “Success at learning is the single most important factor in intrinsic motivation.” So the more we can challenge our students, allow them to take risks, guide them when they fail, and lead them to find success, the more motivated they will be.

3 thoughts on “Motivation in a Standards Based Culture

  1. I know three things for sure. 1) Teachers cannot approach apathy with lower standards and hope to get results. We cannot make things easy enough for disaffected students to succeed. That isn’t the answer. 2) If any of us were to spend the day shadowing a student, we’d may quickly recognize causes for our alarm and his/her apathy. I’m doing this now as a 1:1. 3) We have to find a way to – as you’ve so accurately stated – dramatically increase the amount of respect with which we approach students being. I know it’s hard and getting harder with the culture and the class sizes, but respect can transcend all aspects of our work. It’s our best answer for kids, and I bet we’d feel it back from them.

  2. I especially found your point about the tasks being respectful relevant. When students don’t find the activities in class interesting and engaging there is really no reason for them to stay involved. We’ve all heard those lamentations you mentioned, but its up to us to make sure that we provide opportunities for students to create interesting and unique content. Once we do that students won’t think twice about being proud of what they’ve accomplished.

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