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Ask Dr. Lynch: Supporting Students’ Intrinsic Motivation

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is an associate professor of education at Langston University. Dr. Lynch provides expert advice on everything from classroom management to differentiated instruction. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

This week, Samuel Adawuofor, an EducationWorld Facebook fan, asks:

I am looking for ways to motivate students who have lost interest in some subjects because they view them as difficult and boring. How can I achieve this?


Before I dive into your question, I would like to thank you for taking a proactive approach to this problem. Far too often, teachers write off unmotivated students as collateral damage and instead focus their attention on "the students who want to learn."

Only a small percentage of students come to school with an overwhelming desire to learn. Many attend school on a daily basis because their parents and other members of their support system force them to do so. It is very difficult to motivate a student who is not intrinsically motivated. With authentic lessons and inquiry learning, however, educators can start to make learning enjoyable.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

To assist in motivating students, teachers could distribute a survey asking them what they want to learn, what they have already learned, and what the teacher could do to make learning more exciting. With the stress of standardized tests, it might be difficult to take the time out of the day to distribute the survey, but every effort should be made to do so.

Students are more prone to become engaged in assignments when the teacher has created a safe and inviting learning environment. Students want to work in an educational environment where the teacher explicitly outlines expectations. In order to be successful, students must be given the opportunity to engage in activities just beyond their abilities.

The teacher also has an obligation to create an environment that promotes learning. This means, for example, that teachers should not embarrass students for a wrong answer or a below-standard test score—nor should they allow other students to make fun of wrong answers and below-standard test scores. We need to make sure that the debate on the quality of American schools focuses on the academic practices directly affecting student learning.

Schools are not only concerned with test scores, but also with equality. All students should be considered equal, regardless of their age, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, cultural beliefs and ability levels. If all students feel they are being treated equally, then they will be more motivated to work. Students will feel intrinsically motivated to learn when they feel respected by teachers and the staff, and will work harder to achieve the goals that teachers and schools have outlined.

Student-teacher and family-student relationships also influence intrinsic motivation. In order for students to perform well in school, they will need to have the proper support system both in school and at home. Most students are only interested in performing for the people that matter most to them. If these people do not hold education in high regard, then the student will not hold education in high regard.

When students are in the elementary grades, they will usually perform for their parents and for their teachers with little to no resistance. Once students develop social networks, parents and teachers are quickly replaced by peers. Adolescents are prone to peer pressure and succumb easily to their peers’ suggestions and viewpoints. It is important for high school teachers to create strong student-teacher relationships, in order to motivate students to engage in behaviors that lead to academic achievement and positive outcomes.

It is also important for teachers to create and support opportunities for students to collaborate with others. Teachers who create high levels of student engagement understand the possibilities that group collaboration affords.

Student engagement is one of the potential indicators of the effectiveness of a school. Educators and administrators have to concentrate their efforts on activities that engage students in order to foster academic achievement. If they do not, they will have a room full of students who are either academically disengaged or who are merely giving the impression that they are academically engaged. Students are more likely to pay attention when they are on board with what is being taught.

If students complete a task they feel is boring, then they do so to comply with the teacher’s directions, and not because they are intrinsically motivated. If the classroom is devoid of fun and excitement, students will not acquire the love of learning, leaving them less likely to move on to higher education.

If you implement the strategies and ideas that I have outlined above, you will soon have a classroom full of students who are motivated and eager to learn.


About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.