What Motivates Students?

Posted in SSZ Briefings  ·  July 5th 2016

We know that a key question for all teachers is: what is it that motivates a student to want to learn. 
We recently came across this research (1) into academic mindsets and thought you might find it as interesting as we did.
Academic mindsets are “the psycho-social attitudes or beliefs one has about oneself in relation to academic work,” (2) and these attitudes and beliefs are often what compel students to engage in learning – or not.  So, turns out an academic mindset is one that encourages you to learn – or be academic: in other words, a mindset that motivates!  Could be useful then.
Carol Dweck has promoted the concept of a growth mindset: that each person can grow their brain by hard work and become cleverer and more intelligent as a result.  We have written about this growth mindset in our Digests before.
The growth mindset is one example of why a student might want to learn.  This research says there are three other “academic mindsets”.

Academic Perseverance
In June 2012, a research team in the States published a literature review (2) on “non-cognitive factors” in student learning.  By this, they meant the skills, attitudes, beliefs, and strategies that play a role in school performance but which are not directly measured by most “cognitive” academic tests. But to measure school performance, they first looked at student grades.
In their review, they found that Academic Behaviours (attending class, doing homework, engaging in classroom activities, studying) have the strongest relationship to grades. The most direct way to improve students’ academic performance is to improve their academic behaviours (i.e., increasing their attendance, increasing the amount they study, increasing the number of assignments they complete, and/or improving their class participation).  So far, so unsurprising!
But more interestingly, they also found that other things are just as important: the quality, intensity, and duration of effort invested in these academic behaviours, a factor they referred to as Academic Perseverance (i.e., tenacity or grit). The more perseverance a student exhibits, the more likely he or she is to attend class even when other things interfere, to complete homework even when it is challenging, and to continue pursuing academic goals even when setbacks or obstacles get in the way.
The research evidence suggests that one of the best ways to increase students’ perseverance and improve their academic behaviours is by supporting the development of Academic Mindsets. Students with positive academic mindsets work harder, engage in more productive academic behaviours, and persevere to overcome obstacles to success.
And, as you might expect, students with negative mindsets about school or about themselves as learners are likely to withdraw from the behaviours essential for academic success and to give up easily when they encounter setbacks or difficulty.
Further research has demonstrated that academic mindsets are malleable factors that can be changed intentionally through teaching.  This suggests that the most fruitful way to improve academic perseverance and to help students build the other competencies associated with deeper learning is to develop positive academic mindsets.

Four Academic Mindsets

The 2012 report identified four key academic mindsets, each of which is independently associated with increased perseverance, better academic behaviours, and higher grades. These mindsets draw directly from seminal research on human motivation and basic psychological needs. In the 2013 review, these four mindsets are expressed in the first person from the point of view of the learner:

“I belong in this academic community”

Feeling connected to adults and peers at school, intellectually, not just socially, through an academic community, is a strong motivator. Study groups is a good example of this. Feeling a sense of belonging in an intellectual community helps students interpret setbacks as a natural part of learning, and not as a personal deficit that sets them apart.  A student without this sense of belonging loses the will to try.

“I believe I can succeed at this”

Students’ belief in their own self-efficacy is a better predictor of academic success than their ability. Students need to feel that they’re likely to succeed in order to put in all the hard work of learning something that’s challenging. When students believe they’ll fail, they often don’t invest in the work or, at least, they’ll devalue the task.

“This work has meaning and value for me”

The brain naturally looks for connections. When students find academic work to be relevant to their lives, their interests, and their concerns, they’re much more likely to work on a task in a sustained way and to perform well. It takes much more energy to focus attention on a task that does not have direct value to the student.

“My abilities and intelligence can grow with my effort”

Known as the growth mindset, Carol Dweck’s theory is if students believe the brain is a muscle that must be exercised, they’re more likely to interpret setbacks as opportunities to learn and improve. This mindset is associated with the joy of mastering a task, rather than learning for a grade or to outperform others.

Crucial Sixth Component
To meet its ambitious goals and guide funding in this area, the Hewlett Foundation had developed a framework articulating the components of deeper learning, drawing on current research and interviewing leading thinkers in education, business, and public policy. The deeper learning framework identifies key content knowledge, academic skills, and learning competencies that should be the products of any child’s education. The original framework included five components:
– master core academic content through – critical thinking and complex problem solving,- working collaboratively – communicating effectively, and – learning how to learn.

As a result of this recent research, the Foundation has now added “academic mindset” as a crucial sixth component.

Schools can encourage students to develop these mindsets, but it requires a deliberate focus. “One thing we like to do as a school is celebrate kids taking risks and failing and then learning from those failures,” says one principal. Or as a student on one of our own recent study skills workshops wrote in her feedback afterwards, “I liked hearing about how mistakes are good because we never hear that in school, thank you.”
To help students see learning as a process, assessment needs to reflect the same ethos.  It needs to include lots of informal feedback so students can improve on their work. Some schools we know adopt a policy of all teacher marking being in green and then students have a second chance to show what they know in red.  This practice is fostering an academic or growth mindset.

(1) Camille A. Farrington (April 2013). Academic Mindsets as a Critical Component of Deeper Learning, A White Paper prepared for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. University of Chicago, Consortium on Chicago School Research. (2) Farrington, C. A., et al (2012). Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Academic Performance – A Critical Literature Review. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

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