We know that students’ motivation to learn sometimes declines as they move through school. This is a sobering fact for those of us in education, and for parents, to know that the longer our students are with us, the more they tend to lose interest in school. We adults are so troubled by this that we can often be heard assigning blame for the problem: poor parenting, ineffective teaching, video games, the mass media, substance abuse, lazy or spoiled kids.
Many factors contribute to apathy, but we adults would be wise to focus on the motivational variables within our sphere of influence. Or perhaps a better approach would be to identify how we sometimes undermine students’ motivation to learn, so we can STOP! Research suggests that we undermine motivation when we:
ütell students what to think, feel, read, write, or say
üexpect students to perform a task which they are not prepared to perform
üevaluate performance with no specific feedback
üevaluate only the negative aspects of performance
ümake empty praise statements: “Great job!” “Awesome!”
üincrease competition in the classroom
ütalk/lecture more than we question/facilitate
üassign learning tasks as punishment
üassign large projects without breaking them into parts
üthreaten, coerce, or scare students to perform better
übribe or reward students to perform better
üare not prepared ourselves
Self-Determination (Deci & Ryan) Theory asserts that humans are motivated by universal needs for 1) competence, 2) autonomy, and 3) relatedness; in other words, we share a universal need to “self-determine” our lives. For a task to motivate us, we need to feel that we have the skills necessary to be successful, that we have some choice and control over the task, and that our engagement is likely to increase our feelings ofconnectedness to other people. From the moment we are born, motivated is our “natural state.” When we are unmotivated, it is unnatural.
The most effective teachers, coaches, and parents know this. They motivate their students through a relentless emphasis on the skills necessary for competence, by showing them how to be the authors of their lives, and by fostering the relationships that are fundamental to their well-being. Where all three are in place, apathy cannot survive.