One of the most difficult classes I ever taught was a class of second-semester seniors during the last period of the day. They’d drag into class, slump in their seats, and complain about every assignment I gave them. Some days, they would spend so much time talking, joking, and ignoring me that it would take me 10 minutes or more just to get the class started. Other days, they barely registered a pulse, passively enduring my lessons or openly sleeping at their desks.
I tried everything I could think of to get them motivated and love learning as much as I did:
My big mistake
After 6 weeks of trying everything I knew (and failing miserably), we struck an uneasy compromise. I gave them seat-work each day and they pretended to do it. And, I totally gave up on assigning homework since they never completed it any way.
But it bothered me. Why was it that they didn’t find any of my other tactics motivating? After all, the things I chose would certainly motivate ME if I were in their shoes.
And herein lay my mistake. It’s the same mistake many of us continue to make today. We try to motivate students based on what motivates US, rather than on what motivates THEM.
You see, I was always a good student. I loved school and found learning interesting. So I couldn’t understand it when students didn’t love to learn. All of my motivational tactics were at their heart based on what I would find motivating if I were in their shoes. I never took the time to figure out what drove them.
Looking back and knowing what I know now, while I was motivated by mastery and learning, not all my students were. Many of them were more motivated by a need to exercise choices, to connect with each other, and to do work they felt was relevant. Had I understood that, I could have chosen motivational strategies that actually met their motivational needs. But because I wasn’t aware that different people have different motivators, I continued to try to inspire them with what would inspire me.
I see this same mistake being played out in classrooms every day. If you don’t know the 4 key motivators and how to recognize them in your students, you’ll always default to motivational strategies that align with the way that YOU are motivated and totally miss opportunities to reach your students in the way that THEY are motivated best.
Understanding what really motivates students
You see, in order for students to be motivated they need 4 things:
Autonomy: To be motivated, students need to feel that they have some choices in the learning process. If they feel that they are without choices, it is hard for them to fully invest in their learning.
Mastery: Students need to feel that they can develop a level of competence as they learn. If the learning feels too hard and success feels too far out of reach, they will be far less likely to try hard, persist through difficulty, and remain engaged in the learning.
Purpose: Students need to feel that the learning activities they do are meaningful. If they do not understand why they are being asked to do things in the classroom, they may simply go through the motions or opt out of doing any work at all.
Connection: Students need to feel that they belong in the classroom and that they are valued by the members of the classroom community, if they are going to invest fully in the classroom. If students feel disconnected from you and from other students, they are likely to divest themselves from the classroom community and from the learning.
But there’s more…
While every human being needs all four of these motivators in order to become and remain motivated, over the years I’ve noticed something really fascinating:
Each of us has a dominant motivator.
What that means is that while all of us needs autonomy, mastery, purpose, and connection, each of us has one key motivator that is critical if we are going to get and stay motivated. For some of us, mastery is the dominant motivator. For others, the dominant motivator is purpose. For some, the dominant motivator might be purpose and for still others, the dominant motivator might be connection.
If you are unaware of the 4 Key Motivators, then you might assume that everyone is motivated the way that you are motivated. But when you are aware that each of us has a different dominant motivator, you can choose motivational strategies that feed your students’ dominant motivators instead of yours.
And what if you don’t know what your students’ dominant motivators are?
Well then make sure that you build a classroom environment where all four Key Motivators are present every single day. That way, your students get what they need regardless of what their dominant motivator is.
Without these four elements in place, it is nearly impossible to get students motivated or to sustain their motivation over time. But when you build them into your classroom each and every day, you are much more likely to reach students where they are and give them what they need to be truly motivated to learn.