The things they do and don't do motivate children to succeed. (2023)

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Things That Motivate Kids to Succeed and Things That Don't

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The things they do and don't do motivate children to succeed. (1)

By Tiffany WenDecember 5, 2019

Two drivers of learning behavior are natural curiosity and the desire for reward. But what better way to help children learn?


Getting kids to learn for the sake of learning, not with the promise of an A or the threat of an F. Sounds like a pipe dream, doesn't it? Maybe not.

From an early age, children are naturally interested in exploring their environment. From examining a blade of grass to playing with the family pet, young children want to know how everything works, feels, and tastes. Experts say they then learn to do something, like sit quietly at a snack table, to receive a reward or avoid punishment.

These two drivers of behavior are known asintrinsic motivation(natural curiosity) and extrinsic motivation (linked to reward). But what better way to help children learn? And can you foster the joy of learning without giving rewards?

The value of natural curiosity

“Intrinsic motivation starts very early. Children are proactive. They are curious by nature,” says Professor Frédéric Guay, a motivation expert at Laval University in Québec. "Educators and the school system must foster this motivation."

The things they do and don't do motivate children to succeed. (2)

Acknowledging good student behavior in a learning environment can encourage others to do the same (Credit: Alamy)

Guay and colleagues conducted a forthcoming meta-analysis of intrinsic motivation and student outcomes from elementary school to college, examining 344 studies and a sample of more than 200,000 children. Students completed a questionnaire to measure different types of motivation, and grades were self-reported or taken from report cards. The researchers found that students who enjoyed certain subjects experienced better performance, more perseverance, and more creativity in those areas.

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Other research supports the idea that intrinsically motivated children learn better. alearnfrom Germany found that students ages 7 to 9 who felt immersed in the stories they read had better reading comprehension than those who were motivated by a desire to compete with other students.OthersA German study found a reciprocal association between intrinsic motivation for reading and reading performance in 8- to 10-year-old students, but no such association when the motivation was extrinsic.

And the benefits of intrinsic achievement motivation aren't limited to kids. alearnwho examined the motivations of cadets at West Point Military Academy found that those who were purely intrinsically motivated were more likely to become NCOs, extend their service, and be selected for early promotions than those who were both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated .

So why do we give stickers?

But despite the evidence on the importance of fostering intrinsic motivation, a culture of rewards creeps into the classroom from the start. Children receive rewards such as stickers to encourage good behavior and periodic reports to officially recognize achievement.

Acknowledging a student's good behavior helps other students to do the same - Christine Dewart

alearnFor example, looking at the use of rewards by teachers from kindergarten through fifth grade, it was found that all teachers in the study used rewards as praise. Nearly 80% also used weekly physical rewards, such as tokens, to purchase prizes later. Other common forms of reward were class privileges, such as choosing an activity or extra time for fun activities.

Christine Dewart, who has been teaching five- to six-year-olds in California for nine years, says that when she studied child development in college, the focus was on the importance of intrinsic motivation and avoiding too many rewards. But in her daily professional experience, she sees the value of using rewards to manage her class and has discovered that "recognizing one student's good behavior helps other students do the same."

The things they do and don't do motivate children to succeed. (3)

Inspiring intrinsic motivation in children means making them feel in control of their own choices and learning styles (Credit: Alamy)

Dewart cites the case of a student with anxiety and physical aggression problems. "I didn't want to point him out for bad behavior, so I devised a behavior plan that included rewards. For every 15 minutes he could control himself, he gained one minute of free time that he could use later." The 15 minute requirement then became 30 minutes and finally a full lesson in which he could remain calm and alert, a process stimulated by the reward.

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Can intrinsic motivation be increased?

If raising children is a complex combination of nurturing their own curiosity and rewarding them for completing less engaging tasks, can we do more to make the task itself rewarding?

Sarah McGeown, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Edinburgh, says there are things teachers and parents can do to boost a child's intrinsic motivation. An example is recreational reading.Intrinsic reading motivation is a predictor.

She says it's important to find books that are at the right reading level and encourage students to identify as readers, even if they prefer comics or magazines to novels. “It's about broadening the idea of ​​what it means to be a reader so that more children and young people can identify as readers,” she says. "It's very important to help children find the genres or authors they like."

Guay believes it's important to support children in a way that makes them feel like they have choices and are doing things of their own free will. "Instead of focusing on the rewards, focus on the quality of the relationship with the students," she says. "[That] means listening to children and even acknowledging negative feelings that are normal."

Studies have shown that in older students, extrinsic motivators can improve performance.

He suggests finding time to address negative feelings about an activity and why it's worthwhile, even if it's not particularly fun. "Students who find learning important, even if they don't enjoy it, will achieve the same positive results as students with high intrinsic motivation."

Is feedback better than ratings?

But what does all this mean for grades, perhaps the most obvious extrinsic motivator for students? Both Guay and McGeown say you need to focus less on grades and more on the effort that goes into the process itself. But some teachers want to go further.

Aaron Blackwelder, a high school English teacher, helped start the Facebook groupTeachers leave without gradesthree years ago. From an initial membership of a few hundred, it now has over 5,000 members.

was inspired by aseries of studiesin the 1980s, where students aged 10-12 were assigned to receive grades, grades and feedback, or just feedback. Interest and performance were highest among students who received feedback alone, while grades and grades plus feedback undermined their interest and performance, the studies found.

Instead of assigning grades, Blackwelder presents students with a list of skills they must master and opts for a feedback-only model on assignments. Some teachers are suspicious of his methods, but he believes they work. While there are always some kids who don't participate, that number hasn't increased, while the kids who do are improving "astronomically."

The things they do and don't do motivate children to succeed. (4)

Research has found that students who are intrinsically motivated to learn perform better than those who are motivated by competition or external rewards (Credit: Alamy)

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"They trust me to give constructive feedback because my actions are not perceived as punishment," he says. “Students trust each other because there is no competition for the most points and the best grade in the class. Rather, students rely on each other's strengths to succeed."

Despite his preferred role model, Blackwelder has to give a grade at the end of the semester. But Adam Tyner, associate director for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank on education reform, says the grades serve a practical purpose.

“The main benefit of using grades is that it distills achievement into a single value that parents and students should be able to understand. Teachers can factor both school performance results and everyday behavior into student grades, which means they can not only theoretically assess whether a student understands subject matter, but also "non-cognitive skills" such as reading. B. How well students cooperate and work together. ”

And the fact that teachers who have adopted a feedback-only model in the classroom are still required to report a final grade points to a societal reality that as we age and enter the job market, there is extrinsic motivation, probably in the form of wages: having will play a bigger role in our lives.

A place for rewards?

This may be partly why studies have shown that in older students, extrinsic motivators can improve performance.

Tyner targets the National Math and Science InitiativeCollege Prep Programin the United States that combines continuing education for high school students with financial incentives for successful students and teachers. “A rigorous assessment by Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jacksonmeetingthat the NMSI program increases college attendance by 4.2 percentage points while increasing college readiness and long-term workforce outcomes. Some subgroup effects were striking. Hispanic students saw an 11% increase in earnings when exposed to the NMSI incentive program.”

I am skeptical that with most adolescent school work... there is a lot of intrinsic student motivation that we need to worry about undermining - Adam Tyner

Tyner adds that while extrinsic motivators can undermine existing high levels of intrinsic motivation,not always the case, and children are not always intrinsically motivated.

"One point the researchers make is that extrinsic motivators can be dangerous when intrinsic motivation is already very high and a new stimulus reshapes the experience as something you get paid for rather than something you do for fun," he says. "I am skeptical that in most schoolwork for young people, especially in difficult and technical subjects like math, there is a lot of intrinsic student motivation that we need to worry about undermining."

And both motivators can support each other. “There is a myth that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are part of some kind of zero-sum competition. If an extrinsic motivator causes a student to learn and empowers learning, then the extrinsic motivator can indirectly empower students.

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