The issue of extrinsic motivation is a pretty complex one. When the motivation comes from outside the student, driven often by the desire to receive some reward or avoid some sort of punishment (such as grades, stickers, or teacher approval), the student is extrinsically motivated. The use of rewards, prizes, incentives, consequences, and punishments are certainly common practice in schools. And the work people do in the real world is often regulated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. But there is also evidence that a focus on punishments and rewards can be counterproductive to learning. Turns out that here are different kinds of extrinsic motivation and each can either improve learning or shut it down.
These posts explore productive and counterproductive types of extrinsic motivation:
- Extrinsic Rewards – Productive or Counterproductive – Part 1
- 5 Reasons to Avoid Rewards and Other Extrinsic Motivators
- 4 Reasons We (Try To) Use Extrinsic Motivators
- Counterproductive Extrinsic Motivation: Avoid Bribery Rewards
- An Extrinsic Motivator So Good It Should Be Your Secret Weapon
I was especially dissatisfied with my own teaching when I started.
Early in my teaching career, I was presented with a paradox that continues to shape my interests in education. When I was teaching high school computer application courses, my students would learn to use a word processor (in the day when stuents were likely to only have access to computers at school). I was very thorough and made sure they learned how to use nearly every feature (although word processors then had many fewer features than they do today!). We spent a lot of time on it, and together we worked hard so that nearly everyone would be successful on the challenging word processing test.
What surprised me, however, was that a few weeks later, students would return to me, announce that they had a paper to write, and ask me to show them how to use “that word processor thing” again!
I couldn't understand why these students didn't remember how to use the program. These were bright students who had had no problems during class, and who had done well on the test. Very little time had gone by since we had last used the word processor. There was no reason that they should not know how to use it.
There was obviously something I didn't understand about learning. It was the first time I started to question how learning took place, and prompted my inquiry into how people learn.
I fear that during my first few years of my teaching, all I had really taught most of my students was that I was knowledgeable within my field. I tried to convey my knowledge to my students but I was simply trying to “fill their vessels.”
The way I organized the curriculum wasn't even oriented toward learning; it was organized for teaching. I was mostly concerned with questions like when were the standardized tests and what would be on them, when would other teachers be teaching related ideas, what would kids need to know for the next course? All my content was organized the way an expert might look at it. It was neatly categorized and sequenced like it might be done by someone who was already familiar with the information.
I never asked myself how people might learn the same information. I never asked how experts had acquired their vast knowledge; was it through a logical sequence or some other order?
Some of my kids seemed to do okay, but not enough of my students to make me feel like I had done a satisfactory job. I knew I was teaching the way all my teachers had taught me, so I knew I was teaching correctly. But somehow contradictions, like with the word processor, kept happening, and I started to doubt if it really were the right way to teach…
Those contradictions and doubts led me to question my assumptions about teaching and learning. Eventually, I found tidbits that helped shape my work, such as the quote from the classical Greek philosopher, Plutarch, “A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.“
My job wasn't to give students information but to inspire and nurture them. And like Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don't need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”
It may not be possible to always tie curriculum into the students’ interests, even when teachers know their students well. I do believe, however, that we can make things interesting.
Take, for example, adjectives.
This is typically a topic that many students are less than enthusiastic to study (was that an understatement?). Even so, one of the university practicum students I was supervising (teacher candidates doing their sophomore student teaching) had planned a different kind of lesson designed to make adjectives interesting to students.
When the students came into the room, each pair of students had a little brown paper lunch bag. On the brown paper lunch bag was written one of the five senses. The practicum student began, “There is a mystery object in your brown paper lunch bag and what you are going to do is try and help us figure our what your mystery object is. What you and your partner are going to do is write down as many descriptive words as you can about your mystery object. Don’t take your mystery object out of the bag, because you don’t want anybody to see it, but write down as many descriptive words as you can. Each descriptive word should only relate to the sense written on your bag.”
For example, if the bag was labeled “sight,” the students could only write about what it looked like. If it said “taste” the students could only write about what it tasted like. If it said “hearing,” the students could only write about what it sounded like, etc.
So students generated their words and then the class regrouped and each pair read off their lists. When the other students could figure out what the mystery object was, just from the list of descriptive words, the whole class applauded! When the students could not figure out what the object was, my student teacher would say, “Wow, those were great descriptive words, but we didn’t figure out what it is yet. Why don’t you show us what it is and the rest of you now think of descriptive words for that sense that would have helped you figure it out!” And the students could often think of a couple words that would have helped the class.
When they were all done deducing the objects in the bags, the practicum student asked, “Do you know what we’ve been working with all day today? We’ve been working with adjectives. Adjectives are just descriptive words.” Then she would instruct the students to open their grammar books and do a series of exercises related to identifying and applying adjectives.
And the students did the assignment!
Have you ever seen kids willingly do assignments in the grammar book?!
It was because they were hooked; because she made it interesting to them first.
How do you try to hook students on a topic you are teaching?
Intrinsic motivation (things that we're interested in) is probably our most powerful motivator. Interest as a motivator is not just building on what students are already interested in. It is also about making things interesting.
- Can you use novelty?
- Can you make it a mystery?
- Can you make it fun?
- Can you make it interesting?
My doctorate focused on what motivates underachieving middle school students (article; dissertation). In the Underachievers Study, even though students thought that much of their work did not tie in with their interests, they did find some of the work interesting. This varied by the individual. Doris liked teachers sharing stories from their past. Cathy liked lessons related to government and books such as The Outsiders and Huck Finn, which related to the South, where she had lived as a young child. Ben thought his fourth grade teacher, who dressed up as story characters, was interesting.
There is a special category that motivates middle school students: “blood and guts.” Why do you think those “Grossology” books that we all love to hate sell so well? Because middle school kids love belching and farting, body parts and bodily fluids. They love anything disgusting! So anything, we can tie productively into belching and farting will capture their imaginations! Mrs. Edwards, a teacher in the study, reported that Ben also liked blood and guts and anything gory, “Ben loves books that have gory stuff things in them. He loved Edgar Allan Poe.”
When I was a university Practicum Supervisor (supervising sophomore student teachers during their first field experience), I was in a sixth grade science teacher’s classroom and they were introducing students to the microscope. A common introductory activity for working with microscopes is to look at the difference between plant cells and animal cells. Often the activity uses onions because they have large cells. The activity also often calls for using cells from inside their mouths. The students have to take a cotton swab, dab the inside of their cheeks, and put it on a slide.
What do all the sixth grade girls say at this point in the activity? “Ewwwww, gross!” But they almost always follow that immediately with, “Let me do it!”
What do you do to make your lessons interesting?