How to Motivate Intrinsic Learning in K-12 Students

By Matthew Lynch

What students desire from their school experience is not necessarily what their parents and members of the larger community want them to learn or experience. Only a small percentage of students come to school with an overwhelming desire to learn. Many attend school on a daily basis because that is simply what they are supposed to do. That doesn’t mean they don’t end up finding subjects they enjoy, but American students do not make the active choice to begin attending school.

So teachers come to the table already behind, in some ways. Not only is it the job of educators to teach, but they must also find ways to make the learning process enjoyable and desirable to students who didn’t make the choice to be in the classroom in the first place. With authentic lessons and inquiry learning, educators can clear this hurdle, though. Here are a few ways how:

Seek feedback. To assist in motivating students, schools could put out a survey asking them what they want to learn, what they have already learned, and what the teacher could do to make learning more exciting. With the stress of standardized tests, it might be difficult to take the time out of the day to distribute the survey, but every effort should be made to do so.

Create safety. Students are more prone to become engaged in assignments when the teacher has created a safe and inviting learning environment. Students want to work in an educational environment where a teacher’s expectations are explicitly outlined. In order to be successful, students must be given the opportunity to engage in activities just above their abilities.

Prioritize learning. It may seem like a smart idea to entertain teachers to motivate them, but solid learning is always the best path. The teacher also has an obligation to create a teaching environment that promotes learning. This means, for example, that teachers should not embarrass students for a wrong answer or a below-standard test score—nor should they allow other students to make fun of wrong answers and below-standard test scores. We need to make sure that the debate on the quality of American schools focuses on the academic practices directly affecting student learning.

Strive for equality. Schools are not only concerned with test scores, but are also concerned with equality. All students should be considered equal, regardless of their age, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, cultural beliefs, and ability levels. If all students feel they are being treated equally, then they will be more motivated to work. Students will feel intrinsically motivated to learn when they feel respected by teachers and the staff, and will work harder to achieve the goals that teachers and schools have outlined.

Consider outside support systems. Student-teacher and family-student relationships also influence intrinsic motivation. In order for students to perform well in school, they will need to have the proper support system both in school and at home. Most students are only interested in performing for the people that matter most to them. If these people do not hold education in high regard, then the student will not hold education in high regard either.

When students are in the elementary grades, they will usually perform for their parents and for their teachers with little to no resistance. Once students develop social networks, parents and teachers are quickly replaced by peers. Adolescents are prone to peer pressure and succumb easily to their peers’ suggestions and viewpoints. It is important for high school teachers to create strong student-teacher relationships, in order to more effectively motivate the students to remain engaged in behaviors that lead to positive academic achievement and outcomes.

Encourage collaboration. It is also important for teachers to create and support opportunities for students to collaborate with others. Schools and teachers that create the high levels of student engagement understand the possibilities learning group collaboration affords. Teachers can also provide opportunities students to collaborate with students in other countries. Collaboration among students in and outside the classroom will have to be closely facilitated by the teacher. If carried out appropriately, outcomes for this strategy can be very positive for all students concerned.

The Importance of Motivated Students

Student engagement is one of the potential indicators of the effectiveness of a school. Educators and administrators have to concentrate their efforts on activities that engage students in order to foster academic achievement. If they do not, they will have a room full of students who are either academically disengaged or who are merely giving the impression that they are academically engaged. Students are less likely to pay attention when they are on board with what is being taught.

If students complete a task they feel is boring, then they do so to comply with the teacher’s directions, and not because they are intrinsically motivated to do so. In too many instances, students operate from a point of extrinsic motivation, sadly to include the motivation to avoid being singled out or to incurring the teacher’s wrath. If the classroom is devoid of fun and excitement, students will not acquire the love of learning, leaving them less likely to move on to higher education.

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