“Teachers know that motivation matters. It is central to student learning; it helps determine how engaged students are in their work, how hard they work, and how well they persevere in the face of challenges.”


In a recent blog post on the Carnegie Foundation website Sarah McKay says there is a gap in education that is more “pernicious” and, more importantly, “more addressable” than the achievement gap.

Drawing on a Carnegie Foundation report she wrote with Susan Headden called “Motivation Matters: How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement,” McKay says teachers can build motivation in students, a key factor in their success, in three important ways:

  1. encouraging positive behaviors by offering rewards and emphasizing the value of students’ work,
  2. improving their academic mindsets,
  3. and enhancing their sense of connectedness with their teachers and their peers.
Here are other key takeaways:
“Getting students to value their schoolwork may be a more effective way to boost engagement.”

Rewards and Value

Gold stars, detentions, grades—all can light fires under students. But research shows that these sorts of extrinsic rewards can also undermine students’ intrinsic motivation for learning…Extrinsic rewards can produce results, particularly if they are unexpected, prize mastery of skills over absolute performance, or encourage identifiable behaviors rather than outcomes. But getting students to see the value in their schoolwork by connecting concepts to their lives may be a more effective way for teachers to boost student engagement.

“The good news for teachers is that student mindsets aren’t set in stone.”

Student Mindsets

Evidence is mounting that academic mindsets are extremely important to student success.  Students’ sense of belonging in their learning environment, their perceptions of how or whether “kids like them” succeed academically, and the extent to which they believe that hard work and persistence pay off—all of these have a powerful effect on student motivation.

In a 2011 study, for instance, freshman at a selective college were given reports ostensibly compiled from a survey of older students at the school. One group’s report showed that these older students had initially worried about whether they belonged in college, but that these concerns dissipated over time; the other group’s report did not address the issue of social belonging. Both groups wrote essays and gave speeches describing how their own college experiences related to the survey results. African-American students who read and reflected on how belonging uncertainty is both common and temporary had dramatically higher GPAs over the course of three years than the control group (who read surveys and wrote essays about topics other than belonging, such as social-political attitudes), cutting the achievement gap between black and white students by 79 percent.

Student Relationships

Students care when they believe that other people care about them. They are less likely to drop out, and more likely to feel positively about school, when they have ongoing connections with teachers. Likewise, when they associate with highly-engaged peers, they become more engaged themselves.

An Issue of Scale

None of these strategies for boosting motivation is necessarily new; good teachers have always incentivized productive behaviors, encouraged positive mindsets, and created caring and connected classroom environments. But the new research adds evidence that these factors are vital to student success, and they show that, through practical interventions, they can be changed. The challenge now is to extend best practices beyond isolated classrooms, making the work systematic and sustained.

Read Sarah’s post here, or read the full report.


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