One of the most prominent academic problems plaguing today’s teenage youth is a lack of motivation toward academic activities; the paucity of research in education for motivation enhancement is surprising (Ames, 1992). The role of schools and their responsibility in providing students with the necessary motivation to achieve is also up for discussion. The issues regarding a lack of motivation are not exclusively restricted to academic subjects; however, there are concerns over healthy lifestyles and a lack of motivation of many students to participate in regular physical activity (Corbin & Pangrazi, 1992).
Studying motivation looks at the causes of goal-oriented activity (Atkinson, 1964). Adaptive motivational patterns promote the establishment, maintenance and attainment of personally challenging and personally valued achievement goals. Maladaptive motivational patterns, therefore, are associated with a failure: an inability to establish reasonable, valued goals; an inability to effectively strive towards such goals; or ultimately, an inability to attain valued goals that are potentially within one’s reach (Dweck, 1986).
Year after year, numerous students find themselves in a position where they have no desire to carry out academic tasks. This absence of such motivation can lead to feelings of frustration and discontentment, which encumber productivity and even affect students’ well-being. So why do students neglect their studies? And what strategies can we apply to fight this lack of motivation?
- Many students can be demotivated by the structure/allocation of rewards: the structure of a course and its allocation of rewards can in itself be enough to encourage or discourage effort (Ames & Russell, 1984). Students may lose motivation to keep up with required reading or revision when their exam is not for another few months; the reward of finishing the module is too far ahead for them to see such a payoff. Likewise, if the teacher/lecturer does not sufficiently distinguish between excellent and poor performance, the student will be less likely to strive for excellence. Furthermore, if the grading criteria are unclear or inconsistently applied, students’ motivation will likely suffer.
Strategies: Highlight connections between graded and ungraded tasks – students will be more motivated to pay attention in classes if they understand how it will aid them in future exams: to keep up with readings if they know it will benefit them towards writing assignments (Meece, 1988). An interesting article about the study conducted by Deci and Ryan (1969) illustrates nicely how rewards can affect student motivation.
- Students have other priorities that compete for their time and attention: they often struggle to balance different goals, including academic (getting good grades), social (making friends/finding a romantic partner) and physical (getting adequate exercise/sleep) (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier & Ryan, 1991). Completing their work to a high standard may have little importance when compared to maintaining a romantic relationship.
Strategies: Assign a reasonable amount of work, ensuring that the workload is commensurate with the size of the module (course credits). Students should also be held accountable for their work; to gain good results they prioritise work they must do, (e.g. to get a good grade) over work they do not necessarily need to do. So linking course work to an outcome they value, such as good grades, will motivate them towards such an outcome (Gorham & Christophel, 1992).
- Students do not believe that their efforts will improve their performance: if a module is known to be difficult, they may feel that no amount of effort they put in will yield anything substantial in terms of achievement. Similarly, early assignments that show discouraging grades may put them off working hard later on as they feel they won’t be able to do the work well. Indeed, Patrick, Skinner and Connell (1993) suggest that students who are most detached from school also have little belief in their academic ability. We can understand then, that some students attribute their academic difficulties to their perceived low competence (Legault & Green-Demers, 2006).
Strategies: To be motivated, students need a standard to aim for that is both challenging and attainable; assignments or quizzes that assess a student’s level of ability early on in the course, can provide a lecturer with knowledge as to the right level of challenge for the students. Having ‘help sessions’ available throughout the duration of the course will also help students communicate difficulties they may be experiencing (Dweck, 1986).
Enhancing student motivation is essential to keeping them engaged with the course and for attaining good grades. To get our students motivated, we not only have to have course and exam structures that can be rewarding, but the teachers themselves need to be highly motivated: teachers must remember the reasons that brought them into teaching in the first place and rekindle that fire within themselves. They then have the opportunity to start a fire and keep it going within their motivated students. Through soft challenges and rewards for the youngest pupils up to respectable challenges and the rewards that come with such achievements for the older students.
Reference: Atkinson, J.W. (1964). An introduction to motivation. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.