Monday, October 26, 2015

A Look at Student Motivation

By Daniel LaSalle

Motivation matters. The Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights, Barack Obama campaigned to become president, and Frida Kahlo painted. These acts required drive and commitment. Motivation matters in school. Self-response questionnaires about perseverance are one of the most powerful predictors of academic success. High school GPA more accurately estimates future college success than any standardized test (including the SATs) precisely because high grades often favor effort, such as completing homework assignments and revising essays. While we see the powerful impacts of motivation, we know much less about what it is. This mysterious phenomenon empowers protests, scientific breakthroughs and every human achievement we have known. Here is a breakdown of what we know about motivation and how all the pieces fit together.

Motivation can be domain-general or domain-specific.

A domain is any area of knowledge. Perhaps it is highly academic, like poetry or mathematics. Perhaps it is physical, like playing football. It can be anything a person can eventually develop an expertise in, which is absolutely anything. Motivation can be restricted to a specific domain. Take the motivated musician who practices hours in a garage but cannot hold down a job. Motivation can be across multiple domains. Maybe the musician loves guitar, babysitting her little sister and chemistry.

This element of motivation exists on a spectrum, and it’s very unlikely we find anyone at either extreme. We would probably not see someone solely motivated in poetry unable to focus enough to eat, nor would we find someone who is equally fascinated by everything. See Diagram #1 below:

Motivation can be unconscious or conscious.

We can be aware (conscious) of our motivation or unaware (unconscious). A dedicated teacher could easily launch into an explanation of why he loves his job and how he invests in his craft.  His motivation as a teacher is conscious. This same teacher may struggle to maintain a long-term romantic relationship and be relatively clueless about why he continues to breakup with his partners. His romantic motivation is unconscious. Our awareness of our own motivation also exists on a spectrum. You can probably think of many decisions you could easily explain and many you cannot.  See Diagram #2 below:

Motivation is the result of an interaction of many differnt psychological process

The utility of making our X and Y axis consciousness and domain-specificity is that we can now make sense of very important psychological constructs in explaining motivation.  See Diagram #3 below:

Personality refers to a stable aspect of a person that does not change dramatically by context. You might describe your uncle’s personality as short-tempered specifically because you have seen him lose his cool multiple times across many different types of situations. It’s precisely these reoccurring behaviors that allow us to consciously describe a person outside of one particular context. As you might have inferred, it’s a very valuable thing that humans have this notion of personality. While I may never learn much about my mechanic’s upbringing, I’ll eventually conclude he is a trustworthy person by interpreting his interactions with me and other customers. Understanding a person’s personality provides one window into motivation. To look through this window, you must be conscious of their behaviors across multiple domains.

Disposition indicates someone’s inherent and inborn qualities. This is not to these things are fixed; it’s just our starting point. You may have a disposition toward anger during political conversations while your friend may have a disposition toward boredom in the same context.  Psychological research has identified half a dozen needs people may have in varying strength based on their disposition. Some have a strong affiliation need, so they have innate drives to be accepted by their community. Others have a strong power need and want to feel in control of situations. Disposition is unconscious since we do not have full awareness of the emotional needs that drive our decisions. It is also domain-general since it impacts all situations. Understanding disposition is another window into motivation.

Extrinsic motivation refers to a specific category of motivation when a person is more interested in the consequence that results from an act than the act itself. For example, if I do not care about understanding math but just want an A in the class, I’m extrinsically motivated. I’m interested in the consequence (grade) than the act (learning math). This motivation is very conscious because I’m very much aware I want the A. This motivation is also very context-specific. I may be extrinsically motivated to pay rent on time because I do not want my credit score to lower rather than any interest in the act of being a reliable tenant.

Intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation’s opposite. Intrinsic motivation is interest in the act without concern for the consequence. A student who is intrinsically motivated in biology class finds studying the living world exciting and enjoyable without the needs to attain praise or avoid detentions.

Understanding the components of motivation is the first step toward deciding how to promote motivation in school.  Is the student motivated across multiple school contexts, only one of them, or none? Is the student aware of his/her motivation or not? Is this motivation a product of personality or disposition? Is it extrinsic or intrinsic? Answering these questions allows educators, parents, administrators and even students themselves to adapt classroom and school structures that hinder or facilitate academic motivation.

Daniel LaSalle is a 9th grade teacher at Olney Charter High School. He also runs the blog You can follow him @teach2impassion on Twitter. For more on this topic, see his full article here: