What Keeps Students Motivated to Learn?

| March 13, 2014 | 51 Comments
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Educators have lots of ideas about how to improve education, to better reach learners and to give students the skills they’ll need in college and beyond the classroom. But often those conversations remain between adults. The real test of any idea is in the classroom, though students are rarely asked about what they think about their education.

A panel of seven students attending schools that are part of the “deeper learning” movement gave their perspective on what it means for them to learn and how educators can work to create a school culture that fosters creativity, collaboration, trust, the ability to fail, and perhaps most importantly, one in which students want to participate.

INTEGRATED PROJECTS

Project-based learning is the norm among these students, but they also have a lot of ideas about what makes a good project work. Students want projects to be integrated across subjects, not separated by discipline. “When it’s integrated, each student can find something they like and everyone can get into it,” said Erina Chavez, a junior at High Tech High North County. “I love when projects are integrated so you can find so many different aspects,” said Daniel Cohen, also a North County junior.

“Treat students like adults. If the students feel like they’re worth it they’ll act more like adults.”

Students described an integrated biology and art project that asked them to research the origins of a disease that had significance for them, and to create an art project around it. They took drastically different approaches to researching an illness that ran in their family — from interviewing family members about the experience for a video, to investigating whether stubbornness is genetic.

At first Chavez wasn’t excited about the project, but she ended up enjoying it because she loves art. “All of us found our own solution to the problem and our own answers with the guidance of our teachers,” said another North County junior Paris Gramann. “It was a struggle because we didn’t really know where we were going, but I always find those are the best ones.”

Students were also excited that this project resulted in a real product that they could display. Their work was recognized and displayed at the University of California at San Diego art gallery. “It got really real at the time it moved up to the exhibition,” said Chavez. “It wasn’t something we were just turning in for a grade, but it was something that we could do well and beautifully.”

Middle school students also appreciate those projects where different subjects are integrated. High Tech Middle Chula Vista seventh grader Ana de Almeida Amaral described an integrated humanities and math/science project, when students read Sherlock Holmes, wrote their own versions, and became experts in one aspect of forensics. Together they created a crime scene in their classroom and then taught everyone assembled about a part of the forensics process through a stop animation video.

INTEREST-BASED AND RELEVANT

Students like to know why they’re learning something and they want to access that information through a lens that interests them. “If teachers give broad guidelines for the project and then have students do something they’re interested in it will bring students along the whole time,” said Gramann. “Treat students like adults. If the students feel like they’re worth it they’ll act more like adults.”

Projects can often last for several weeks, so students need motivation to stay engaged and committed to deeply engaging a topic. Authentic choice is one aspect of allowing that to happen. Students on the panel described real choices they make about their education on a daily basis, from which book they’ll read in Humanities to the different topics they want to research. And even though these students sound like natural learners, many of them haven’t always been. They need teachers to show them why they should care about each learning goal.

“If you really let them know, and use real life problems, it will help them understand it and they will feel like it’s worth doing,” said de Almeida Amaral. “The biggest thing that’s necessary is making sure the projects connect to the students,” said Gibran Huerta, a junior at Envision Academy in Oakland. “Teachers tend to give projects and benchmarks and create topics around things that students don’t really connect to.” He was adamant that learning how to connect a topic to oneself is the key to learning. “Throughout middle school you have to develop skills of how things connect to yourself,” he said.

MAKE IT HANDS-ON

“If you get hands-on and they’re really interacting with what they’re doing, it’s really helpful,” said Trey Lewis, a junior at North County. He’s had teachers that lecture a lot and much prefers doing the work to being told about it. He says it also adds a challenge since most hands-on projects at High Tech High North County are group projects, requiring collaboration, a leadership skill that all students agree isn’t always easy.

“Collaborating productively is a leadership skill at this school,” said Dora Aguilar, a junior at City Arts and Tech, part of the Envision network. She says that while it can be hard, it can also be very rewarding because working with other people allows her to see the project through the eyes of her peers. Other students talked about difficult collaborations too, emphasizing that it runs more smoothly if one group member agrees to keep everyone on track. They also said it gets easier over time as students begin to understand one another’s needs and motivations and can begin to operate as a cohesive group.

KNOWING TEACHERS CARE

The number one thing that students on the panel said makes them want to try hard and succeed is knowing that teachers care about them and are part of the learning journey with them. “I am not the perfect student,” said Aguilar. “What really helped me was the teachers and staff here who showed me that they cared about me. Students can feel that.” She described hating math for most of her life until a good teacher described what she could do with strong math skills in the future. “It got me motivated to learn more and I showed my potential as a student, which I never knew I had,” she said.

Every student reiterated that high expectations and strong support from teachers are crucial. “I feel motivated because the teachers make me feel worth it,” said Gramann. “I feel that I have responsibility and credibility.”

Cohen actually transferred out of High Tech High North County at one point, thinking the school model wasn’t for him. But he quickly came back. “The teachers really do care about us and I think that’s something that makes our school really unique and special,” he said. Others reiterated that feeling connected to school is important to them. “It’s that strong connection between teachers and students that makes students feel like they are at home,” said Huerta. Envision Academy only has 400 students and teachers know all the students by name, contributing to the feeling of “being known.”

LEARNING FROM FAILURE

Every student on the panel had a story of big failure on an important class project. But because the culture of their schools encourage them to learn from mistakes, they can clearly articulate what they’d do differently next time and even laugh about it. Lewis described a solar oven he made that was working great up until the day of the exhibition when it started falling apart. “When we have projects that go wrong last minute and we have to think on our feet and fix it, I definitely think that’s a mistake that’s going to help me in the future,” he said.

Cohen described presenting a project expecting his group mates to be well prepared and have the correct information. But one student’s research was faulty and Cohen hadn’t seen it until the presentation, putting him in a difficult position. “I know now to check over all my work, always revise, make sure all the work is accurate,” he said.

EVALUATING WORK

Project-based learning affords many opportunities for feedback both from teachers and from peers. “Some of the most meaningful feedback I’ve gotten is from students,” said Lewis. Students get used to giving and taking critique daily with each other and hearing it from educators as well. Their ease with it comes from practice and with the awareness that feedback isn’t the end of the process, it’s a part of improving their work.

One tip students offer to educators: When evaluating student work, frame feedback in terms of the learner’s goals instead of referring to the standards. “Goals are more motivating for students to hear,” said Aguilar. While the education policy world may be obsessed with standards, students don’t care about them. They’d rather hear how the skill connects to their lives and interests.

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  • lms99

    Multidisciplinary project learning is not new. Educators have been discussing it as one of the most powerful ways of teaching for the at least the 15 years. Schools and public education in general are not set up to allow for it. As a librarian I push team, across discipline teaching all the time. Unfortunately, as the article states, these projects may take several weeks (especially with below grade level skill sets) and teachers are pressed to cover a certain amount of curriculum. It is all about content, not process of learning, study skills, research and work ethic. It is my opinion, that because we don’t teach and insist on these things, students don’t learn, they complete assignments. I hear all the time that they don’t have time to do their research in the library or time to teach them library skills first. So, students get on google and write down the first answer they find to their question. “Deeper learning”? I have not seen that many times, if at all to be honest, in 15 years. I have spent my years going against the grain because I whole heartedly believe we can do a better job, but not when decisions are being made that undermine the profession by a top down system. Very smart people, who work in professions such as law, medicine and business make up the majority on education boards and committees. They want the students of today to have the same opportunity to be educated and make a good living, but are thinking about the end result of their education. The standardized tests that are required do test the knowledge, technology skills and stamina you wish today’s student had, but the results of those tests tell us they don’t. Teachers know they don’t. The system is broken. You want to fix it, stop creating committees of teachers that discuss the problems and generate ideas for change knowing that a new regulation that would kill that idea is getting instituted next semester. It is a rat race from 7am until 3pm to get many students to listen to instructions, never mind facilitate their learning. Do I sound bitter? Yup! I really thought I would be doing good, but instead I am looking to get out.

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  • Robert Anderson

    The premise of this article is flawed. The question should NOT be “What keeps students motivated to learn?” Students/children are ALWAYS motivated to learn. The question should be “What coercive techniques must be utilized to get students motivated to endure being at school?”

    • Steve E

      I am sorry, but that is just not realistic thinking. Many students come to school NOT motivated to learn for many reasons. It is a shame you seem to be so cynical. I find children love to learn in school and are fascinated by all the things that there are to learn. But, it does take a lot of time and effort on each teacher to provide a challenging environment, lesson (and then have the tools available to make “it” happen), and support from the Principal, mom and dad. Less complaining about every little thing or drama that keeps a teacher from truly teaching.. Parents must provide a joy of learning at home that they model to their children. Then, maybe Joe and Sue will come to school ready to be challenged further. I find more and more that there is not a lot of encouragement coming from many homes. If it can’t be done in five minutes, it is “boring or too hard”, or if there are no graphics it is not stimulating. Self motivation is very important. Teachers in classes of 12, 25 or 30 students can’t always motivate students who have so little self-motivation. They learn from parents who model the importance of learning, and then from teachers who model that same importance. It really can work.

      • Robert Anderson

        Thank you for reply. I wish you would read over what you wrote and you would see that you are defending schooling without any evidence or rationale. You simple accept that schooling is necessary for learning and completely fail to appreciate that the institution is responsible for the problems you and others want it solve.

        I thought my statement was anything but cynical. I know from research and experience that children are motivated to learn and have varied interests and will pursue those interests if they are not interfered with and are given access to tools. Schools have their own agenda and fundamentally impede self-directed learning and demotivate children from intellectual pursuits. Teachers struggle to overcome the obstacles created by the system that they aver and they believe when there are small successes that they are doing something constructive. That is a fallacy. They participate in the destructive institution and the hierarchy of power they accept over students creates a wedge that cannot be overcome.

        • Taylor

          Hi you are right but teachers need to find out how to keep students movtivated without giveing up. My name is taylor

    • spellchek

      Are you kidding? “What coercive techniques…” Clearly you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates human beings in general. I prey you are not a teacher.

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  • http://www.franzgerber.ca Franz Gerber

    As a graduate of a European university, an apprenticeship program in German, and a life long learner, I can only emphasize how important it is to encourage our children and folks around us to maintain their drive towards knowledge. The preamble is to do more earlier, this way you can enjoy it for much longer, especially languages. On the flipside our children should never be forced into Post Secondary Education, if learning does not come naturally to them. Great apprenticeship programs can be more meaningful and fulfilling to them.

    Sapere Aude,

  • Keri Lamle

    I enjoyed the article, but I would like to add novelty as a motivator in learning. “When a sound is played over and over to an infant, they will start to pay less and less attention to it. But if the sound is slightly altered the infants interest will peak again.” (Wendy Ostroff 2013) I believe it is often better to wait to introduce certain new topics/concepts until a student is cognitively able to get the most out of the learning experience. Choosing to wait can give an instructor the ability to harness the motivational effect of novelty with their students. One great example of this might be in deciding when to introduce programming to students.

  • http://resultbaba.in Sophia Wright

    Encourage students to share their ideas and comments, even if they are incorrect. You’ll never know what students don’t understand unless you ask them.
    Maintain eye contact and move toward your students as you interact with them. Nod your head to show that you are listening to them. http://resultbaba.in

  • http://www.bigpicture.org Andrew Frishman

    I was intrigued by many of the points in this article, however, there was one assumption that I concerned me. The final sentence of the opening paragraph begins, “The real test of any idea is in the classroom…” In my experience, particularly at the secondary level, it is vital to not limit learning to “in the classroom” rather we need to develop opportunities to bring the community into the classroom and have students engage in learning outside the walls of the classroom. Elliot Washor and Charlie Mojkowski’s recent book Leaving to Learn captures this idea quite elegantly – I recommend this 3 minute animated short – http://www.leavingtolearn.org/10-Expectations/… Also, if you want to see these ideas in action visit one of the over 100 Big Picture Learning Schools in the US and around the world (www.bigpicturelearning.org)

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  • CrankyFranky

    I see a lot of ‘unmotivated’ students – many come from ethnic backgrounds with immigrant parents and have probably struggled with multiple languages and cultural conflicts and possibly racial abuse and bullying as children and are behind others in educational achievement

    many of these may act up as a cover for their fear of looking stupid – and a misplaced word about missing classes or failure to submit assignments can turn them away and I never see them again – yet if I can sit and discuss meaningfully with them about how to overcome their problems, they usually respond very positively

    that said, most young adults are going through great upheaval in their lives – with health, family, housing, work problems, to say nothing of hormonal changes and sexual distractions – I tell my students ‘unless all your ducks are in a row – your health, housing, family, relationships, and finances are OK – you probably can’t study – so if you have the opportunity, don’t waste it, because you may not get the chance again for a long time’

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  • yeshiembet gemaneh

    Interest is the basic motivation for learning.

  • ALAN JOHN

    I think the class engagement and subject interest also keeps students motivated to learn.
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  • Dennis

    Educational school assembly shows like the ones offered athttp://www.greatassemblies.com is another great way to get students excited about learning.

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  • Autumn H

    I think that these are all great ideas to get students motivated. I think most important is that making sure students know their teacher cares about them. If a student doesn’t think you care about them, why would they listen to anything you had to say? I know from personal experience that if I think someone does not care for me, I am definitely not going to listen to much of what they have to say. Internet-based is also great. Whether we like it or not, technology is becoming more and more apart of this work. So why would we exclude it from the classroom? There are so many things out on the internet that can be helpful for kids and a “new” way of presenting ideas. Great ideas.

  • umbrarchist

    How do you write an article like this without using the word “curiosity”?

    Has it been universally admitted that children are not motivated by that?

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  • Stewart Agron

    Then, maybe Joe and Sue will come to school ready to be challenged further….
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    Nice article and very informative and encouraging to all. thanks to share with us. Job

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