The different ways in which students are motivated can affect their learning experience. An NIE research team is looking into how teachers can help students turn potential negatives into positives.
Academic motivation has always been of interest to Assistant Professor Serena Luo because she knows how it can influence student learning.
“Motivation is the force that drives behaviour,” she says. “It’s the students’ own internal reasons or purposes that drive them to choose and engage in various learning activities.”
But different students can hold very different motivational beliefs. According to Serena, there are four types of beliefs:
- Self-efficacy: This refers to how confident students are in their learning.
- Value: Anything that students inherently enjoy doing will hold an intrinsic value for them. But if students perform a task for reward or because their parents or teachers want them to, the value is extrinsic.
- Goals: Students who set performance goals may study hard because they want to outperform others, but they may also withdraw effort when there is a risk of failure. Those who set mastery goals are keen to learn new things and seek new challenges.
- Attribution: When students succeed or fail in a task, do they attribute it to their innate ability, their hard work or other reasons?
Students’ motivational beliefs shape the emotions they experience while learning. “Both of these, in turn, affect students’ learning strategies, and ultimately, achievement.”
Maladaptive Learning Strategies
Students who tend to have negative learning experiences may end up adopting maladaptive learning strategies. Serena explains that maladaptive learning strategies are those that students use to avoid challenges they face in school:
Some students try to avoid challenges. Such students avoid challenging situations and have difficulty in planning for their studies effectively.
Some students copy answers from others. When they encounter difficulties, these students would rather copy the work of other students than do the work themselves.
Some students “handicap” themselves. When facing a challenge, these students feel they will not do well and will look for reasons to justify their expected poor performance. This expectation may be based on previous experiences or their low self-esteem.
Some students avoid seeking help. These students refrain from seeking help from peers or teachers although they may need it. Even if they do, it may be for the sake of finishing their work quickly with less effort.
Some students use emotional and avoidance coping. When such students encounter failures, they tend to feel despondent or that it is not their fault and shift the blame to others. They may also avoid the problem by shifting their attention to something else.
Turning Negatives into Positives
Students’ motivational beliefs constitute and are constituted by the context and situations in which they study.
To help students adopt positive motivational beliefs, emotions and learning strategies, Serena suggests that teachers can work on three aspects: (1) establish good teacher–student relationships; (2) make learning the classroom goal; and (3) consider students’ needs, opinions and difficulties.
It is important for teachers to show that they have high expectations of their students. In her study, Serena found that if teachers do this, students will tend to feel that they can do better.
Along with this, teachers can explicitly tell students that they can improve if they put in the effort. “We need to let students have that incremental belief about their ability, that their ability can be changed with effort and good learning strategies,” says Serena.
Teachers can also emphasize that the goal in the classroom is to learn, rather than to compare grades. This serves to build a classroom where students are not afraid to make mistakes. All answers and opinions are valued.
These methods will help create a positive classroom climate where students will have positive emotional experiences and learning behaviours.
But there is another way to motivate students that many of us may not think of: using assessment to engage students.
We need to let students have that incremental belief about their ability, that their ability can be changed with effort and good learning strategies.
– Serena Luo, Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group
Assessment for Self-regulated Learning
For Serena, assessment is more than just about tests and exams.
“Assessment is part of the daily learning routine,” she says. “But they aren’t just about the students’ grades, and can also be used to promote self-regulated learning (SRL).”
Self-regulated learners take ownership of their learning and are highly motivated to learn, even when faced with challenging tasks.
While many focus on grades which may reflect how much students have learned, we must remember that assessment is also the time when teachers can give feedback that promotes SRL behaviour.
“Don’t just give a tick or cross,” Serena suggests. “Feedback does not need to be long, but it should be constructive and tell students how to do better.” Students will then know what is expected of them and how they can improve their own learning.
Serena also advises that feedback can be used to motivate if it links students’ improvement to the effort they have put in. A simple “Well done!” or “Good effort!” followed by why and what to do next will get students to see this link.
“Students will see their learning progress and it will enhance their self-efficacy. As long as they put in the effort, they can do better. Over time, students will tend to internalize the value of learning.”
Helping students to learn in such a positive manner is what Serena hopes to achieve and it motivates her to continue her work in this exciting area of education research.
Lee, K., Ning, F., & Hui, C. G. (2014). Interaction between cognitive and non-cognitive factors: The influences of academic goal orientation and working memory on mathematical performance. Educational Psychology, 34(1), 73–91.