In learning, half the battle is won if your students are intrinsically motivated. Through their involvement in a research project, two teachers learn how they can help their students stay motivated from within.
Having taught Math for more than 15 years at Serangoon Garden Secondary School, Senior Teacher Mrs Chan Siew Eng (pictured above) finds that motivation is the main success factor for her Normal (Academic) (NA) students.
And it isn’t just any kind of motivation. “You have to get the students intrinsically motivated,” she says.
Such students have a strong desire and willingness to learn. Their motivation comes from within themselves, because they find learning enjoyable. It is different from extrinsic motivation, when students do something for rewards or incentives, or to avoid punishment.
A Physics Senior Teacher from Tampines Secondary School shares the same sentiments as Mrs Chan. “I used to reward students with chocolates for their good results,” Mdm Lim Chu Toh (pictured below) says. “But after a while, it loses its effects and pales in comparison with intrinsic motivation.”
Their beliefs about motivation, which were shaped by their teaching experience, steered them both towards participating in an NIE research project on self-determination theory (SDT) and motivation.
From Project to Pedagogy
Funded by the NIE’s Education Research Funding Programme and led by Professor John Wang and Associate Professor Liu Woon Chia, the project focuses on how learners become intrinsically driven if their basic needs for competency, autonomy and relatedness are satisfied.
Both teachers worked with the research team for 5 weeks to test out strategies that will meet these three psychological needs of students.
Students develop a sense of competency when they apply their skills and knowledge in the classroom. If they are given choices about how or what they learn in class, students will feel that they have autonomy. A sense of relatedness comes about from the bonds that students form with their teachers and peers.
“If any of these premises is missing, I guess a student may do something only because the teacher tells him or her to do so,” Chu Toh says.
Siew Eng and Chu Toh share with us the strategies they used as part of the project to motivate students:
1) Nurturing Inner Motivational Resources
“There is always this inner motivation in people,” Siew Eng says, “and we have to try to nurture that.”
Giving her students choices is something Siew Eng does to “activate” that inner motivation. When the ball is in their court, students tend to feel they should take charge of their learning.
For example, Siew Eng would prepare two sets of tests and allow students to choose to do just one. “When you give them the choice, it is like: I choose it. Therefore, I own it,” she says.
In Chu Toh’s Physics classroom, if there are a few tasks to be completed during a lesson, such as an experiment, watching of a video clip and teacher-led instruction, she would let her students choose what they wish to start with.
“When I do that, I find that they are more responsive and happier because they have choices,” Chu Toh says.
When I do that (give students choices), I find that they are more responsive and happier.
– Mrs Lim Chu Toh, Tampines Secondary School
2) Providing Explanatory Rationales
For Siew Eng, her NA students study Express stream Math as well as NA Math. “Sometimes, you get students who want to drop out,” she says. “They just cannot cope.”
She feels the need to rationalize their choices with the students, to prevent them from making rash decisions. She counsels them and provides them with what she calls TLC, or tender loving care, which goes a long way.
Siew Eng often shares with her students the benefits of studying Express Math. “By highlighting its value and personal benefit to the students, their intrinsic motivation may increase,” she says.
Sometimes, students get frustrated and impatient when learning a new concept that they find difficult. To ease their frustration, Chu Toh would ask her students, “How many times did your mother have to repeat the alphabet before you learned to recite the letters by yourself?” They would reply, “Countless times!”
Through such questions, Chu Toh shows them that learning cannot be rushed, and that giving themselves time to learn a new concept is important.
3) Relying on Information and Non-controlling Language
Even when it comes to classroom discipline, strategies informed by SDT can help. For example, Siew Eng recalled how a few students took to using profanities in class.
“I thought about it: Do I want to let this go on or do I want to do something about it?” she says. “You can either send them straight to the discipline master or you can put the topic to the floor for discussion.”
She believes that treating her students with calmness and respect helps her understand them better. At the same time, it also creates a positive teacher-student bond.
“I asked them about the ‘popular’ phrases that they’re using,” she says. “And I also asked them: To whom are you directing it at? Why are you doing it?”
By talking to her teenage students in a non-confrontational manner, Siew Eng is able to rationalize with them. “You must remember there mustn’t be anger because if you get angry, you lose control of yourself.”
Also, when disputes occur in class, Chu Toh believes the way to settle differences between the parties is to sit them down and ask questions such as, ‘What happened?”, “Who is/are affected?” and “What can we do to improve the situation?”
This helps to create and maintain good relationships among her students, which is crucial for good school experiences.
4) Allowing Time for Self-Paced Learning
Every student learns differently, and they learn at different paces too. With that in mind, Siew Eng designs supplementary worksheets to help students address their weaker areas. She also conducts Math Clinic sessions where students are free to consult her after class in the school library.
In some instances, students need more time before they can see progress in their learning. Even if this means they need to repeat a year, Siew Eng will not judge them as being “weak” students. “Sometimes, it takes them another year to be ready,” she says, and that is fine with her. Her explanation is simple: A second walk in the park helps a lot!
Sometimes, it takes them another year to be ready – A second walk in the park helps a lot!
– Mdm Chan Siew Eng, Serangoon Garden Secondary School
5) Acknowledging and Accepting Students’ Expression of Negative Affect
Students do get bored during lessons, and Siew Eng has learned to accept their opinions and work with them.
“When you keep revising a topic, they will get bored and say things like: Teacher, can we please move on?” she shares. “You have to be conscious of allowing them to call the shots sometimes but of course, you must have a certain structure in place.”
For example, the topic of vectors in Math is something that her students find challenging. Instead of teaching it repeatedly until all of them understand it well, Siew Eng will move on to another topic and revisit it later on.
“Building their foundation of a subject is very important but after 3 weeks, you may realize their understanding is not getting any better,” she says. “So take a break for a while, and then come back to it later.”
Acknowledge it, accept it and then re-visit it: Siew Eng believes these are crucial for her students’ learning process.
At the end of the day, many of these students are just teenagers who appreciate being listened to and taken seriously by their teachers. Mostly, for both Siew Eng and Chu Toh, connecting with the students is what it takes to motivate the unmotivated.