Motivation is an elusive beast. Just when you think you’ve wrapped your arms around its neck, the beast has found its feet and is gone again. After a couple of rounds attempting to wrestle the beast into submission, we may feel like giving up and declaring, “Well, it will come when it’s ready!”
Of course, even the wildest of beasts are lured with treats and rewards – or chased with punishments and consequences. As is human, we have learned to wield these things in an effort to capture motivation. The trouble is that this extrinsic motivation – especially when it comes to academics – can be short-lived and consistently needs the presence of either positive or negative consequences to be effective.
As students, teachers, tutors or parents who are trying to capture motivation, what we actually want is for the beast to want to come to us. In less flowery terms, we want ourselves, our students, or our children to want to put in the work and effort. How do we capture this intrinsic motivation, this desire to do the work because of the personal benefits we derive from it?
Well, the good news is that it is possible. The bad news is that it’s going to take some proactivity and effort.
There are certain environmental conditions that can be modified and adapted to facilitate intrinsic motivation, although it takes intention and attention to achieve. These conditions are Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy.
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t do things because we love them – we do things because we feel at least marginally competent at them. Capability is often a far better motivator than passion, at least according to Scott Adams in his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.”
There are three relatively simple steps to increase either your own, or your student’s sense of competence:
1. Optimal Challenge
No one feels competent when they’ve achieved something without the slightest bit of effort, we actually want to feel like we have accomplished something. Similarly, if the task is too challenging, the risk of failure – and confirmation of our incompetence – is too high. We’d rather sit out the round, thank you very much.
When it comes to motivating ourselves or our students, you want to identify the level at which you (or they) are comfortable and then stretch the level of difficulty just beyond this point. Naturally, more effort will be required, but with success just within reach, motivation will follow.
2. Accurate feedback
Lack of feedback can be discouraging – when we don’t know what we are doing right or what we need to improve on, we don’t have an accurate indication of our competence at the task.
Like the old adage, if a tree falls in a forest, but no one hears it, did it fall? When we do something, but there is no feedback, did we demonstrate competence? Competence hinges on both the subjective experience of the effort applied, but also the objective feedback received.
For students: Just ask! A percentage score on a test or assignment is rather one dimensional and may encourage you to study or put in effort for the outcome alone. Find out if your self-assessment is accurate by asking for feedback on the sections you feel you performed well in or asking for feedback on sections where you feel you could improve.
For teachers: Provide descriptive feedback – point out where they are erring, and what they are doing well. Descriptive feedback provides an opportunity to point out not only what a student needs to improve on, but also how they can work on it. Giving detailed input will foster mastery of the material rather than attaining a perfect score, as we all know, the mark is secondary to the learning. It’s tempting to gloss over sections that might dampen a student’s confidence, but as their competence grows, the confidence will follow naturally.
3. Recall past successes
In the face of a challenge, a simple, yet effective tool to increase confidence is to recall your past successes.
For students: Keeping a physical list of challenges you have overcome can serve as a reminder that you have shown competence in the past and that you can achieve what you have set your mind to. Small reminders of past success can be a quick and effective way to boost your confidence and motivation in the moment.
For teachers: In addition to reminding students of their past successes, remind them how they achieved it! In the heat of the moment, students tend to see challenges in black or white – easy or insurmountable. Offering a reminder of what they did to overcome similar challenges in the past is an act of compassionate guidance that allows a student to both relive that moment of victory and formulate a plan for how to achieve it again.
Secondly, human beings are designed for connection, and we often derive our motivation from the social environment. Just think back to a hideous haircut you had that was all the rage – surely the motivation came from somewhere other than your completely stylish, rational self? When it comes to academic motivation, relatedness, or connection and positive associations with others, in general, but also in the relevant field, can act as a driver for motivation. This, however, relies on positive influences:
1. Join a group of like-minded people
Connect with people who are striving to learn and master the same material you are. In a group setting, we are often stimulated to think more deeply about the concepts under study because of the various viewpoints being discussed. Keep in mind that this group should include people who are above and below you in terms of their understanding. If you are the smartest, you might not learn much. If you are the least confident with the material, the bar may feel too high to reach and you will ultimately become discouraged.
2. Keep the end in mind
This concept, outlined by Steven Covey in “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, requires you to consider the long-term goals. When joining a group, consider whether the people in this group will truly support your end goal, your “future self.” If, for example, the end you have in mind is a degree in rocket science, you will need a friend group that encourage and support the behaviour that steers you closer to that goal. If, instead, they call you to go shopping each time you sit down to do your math homework, it might be time to balance those friendships with a math study group.
3. Foster powerful friendships
Develop friendships with trustworthy and reliable people – having a shoulder to cry on, or a sounding board to bounce ideas off is an important aspect of motivation and should not be discounted because they seem only indirectly related to motivation. Everyone needs encouragement. A solid friendship with someone you trust can re-affirm our sense of competence: “You’ve done this before; you can do it again!”, and also reinforce our sense of autonomy: “You chose art because you are a great artist. Remember, this is your project – keep running with it!”.
When we feel external pressure, such as striving for a particular mark, praise, or another kind of reward, the elusive beast can turn tail and run. However, when we carry out tasks for the satisfaction of completing them well, with no ulterior motivation, the beast tends to approach us, instead of the other way around. Autonomy, or self-directed action, requires two things:
1. Make decisions
Choice: When we feel that we have the flexibility to make decisions and follow through with them, we take ownership over the outcome.
For teachers and parents: Allow students to make age- and developmentally appropriate choices, such as when and how to schedule study time. This can have a significant impact on the level of responsibility they take for the outcome. It is much easier to blame someone else for a poor result when you weren’t really “in-charge.” It is more effective to allow them to experience the natural consequences of their decisions.
For students: take care to make informed choices – consider all the possibilities and plan for the best outcome. Reach out to someone you trust if you need more information, or just some reassurance. Continually evaluate the efficacy of your decision and course-correct before a concern becomes a crisis. After all, it is your responsibility.
2. Don’t hover
Hovering can send the subtle message that we don’t believe they are capable of exercising autonomy and responsibility and undermines motivation.
For teachers and parents: The urge to ensure that students are taking the necessary steps to ensure their success is natural, however, there is a time and a place for this during the teaching process (this should take place before letting go). At a certain point, it is necessary to let go and let the student take their time to go through the process themselves.
For students: It might be difficult to let go of the support you receive from adults in your environment, but learning to solve problems independently, struggling through a learning or social challenge, or managing relationships with teachers can all play a beneficial part of growing your resilience. Realise, however, that help is at hand when you feel stuck. Reaching out to a trusted adult is a valid problem-solving strategy – just make sure it is not your first port of call!
If all else fails and the beast continues to elude you, just start. I like to call the energy that it takes to start a project ‘activation energy’. Why? Because it usually takes more energy to start than it does to keep working. Set a five-minute timer and work for at least those five minutes. If you can’t manage to keep going, maybe activation energy is not the problem. If you’re burnt out, you might need to take a nap, or have a chat with a friend. If you’re facing a ‘brain block’, you might try asking for feedback on what you’ve done so far from a friend or tutor – in the case of an essay, you could talk to someone about the topic you’ve been working on. Once you’re feeling recharged, you can attack the problem from a new angle.
For a deeper dive into the science of the principles that affect motivation according to Self-determination theory, see Toni’s article.