Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Focusing on Student Motivation

By Donna Wilson

Do you believe students become smarter through learning or that intelligence is determined at birth? The former belief is compatible with a growth mindset, while the latter is consistent with a fixed mindset. The distinction between these two points of view is the basis of Marcus’ and my latest book with ASCD, Developing Growth Mindsets: Principles and Practices for Maximizing Students’ Potential.

If you believe that students can become smarter through hard work and determination, then you are an advocate of a growth mindset and you’re also likely subscribe to the belief that motivation is a key force for learning. 

The importance of motivation became more evident over the past academic year because of the sometimes-challenging circumstances under which teaching and learning were taking place. Teachers quickly discovered that whether K-12 students are learning remotely or onsite in the classroom, a growth mindset is key to improving academic achievement. In disruptive times, a growth mindset may be even more important since it can increase motivation to complete academic tasks and to work independently.

Putting Forth the Effort

For me, the importance of motivation surfaced in the early 1980s while I was working with a group of seventh-grade students who had been classified as “gifted.”

Some of these students were highly motivated to achieve while others were less motivated and underachieving. This latter group seemed to believe that because they were “smart”—i.e., their intelligence was determined at birth—they did not need to put forth much effort in school. In contrast, their higher-achieving peers seemed to understand that they needed to put forth effort in order to reach their potential and achieve better results in school.

Over the years, I’ve heard teachers tell stories about students who have overcome odds to become high academic achievers. These are the students who have put effort into their learning to become top performers. Teachers love having these students in the classroom because they work hard.

Building a Sense of Pride

In classrooms, when students believe they are responsible for their own success, they are likely to feel a sense of pride in their accomplishments and confidence in their abilities. This fuels continued effort to achieve. On the other hand, if they attribute their success to someone else—i.e., “The teacher gave me an A”—they are less likely to feel pride and confidence that it was their hard work that allowed them to achieve academically.

The belief that intelligence can be developed, just as musical talent or athletic ability can be honed through dedication and hard work, is a crucial element to motivation that will improve academic performance. By helping students develop their growth mindset, you can motivate them to achieve better results.

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