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Motivation and Habits: Three Steps to Building Student Agency

Every January, the fitness and diet industries experience a bump in customer demand. This short-lived desire of the American public to prioritize health after an indulgent holiday season is not only temporary; it also fails to produce lifelong habits. Motivation is pretty tricky, particularly when there is no internal desire for lasting change. This truth applies to more than just nutrition or exercise; it also applies to how we help our students build good learning habits. With just three steps that explore and meet the intrinsic needs of students, we can accomplish the desirable goal of building student agency to create long-lasting achievement.

Uncovering the “Why”

I used to be pretty quiet in class, but I loved to perform. My teachers were a little confused when the school play came around each year and I suddenly came out of my shell. If anyone had bothered to ask me what was going on at the time, I would have explained that I cared about theater, but I did not care about most of what we did in class, which accounted for the difference in motivation. Each of us has a “why,” something that intrigues us and keeps us going each day. In a younger child, this might manifest as an interest in trains or a specific television show, and older students show outside interests in anything from pop culture to animals. In fact, adults are the same, which is why we gather for “water cooler” conversation to discuss last night’s episode of The Bachelor (or what have you). It might seem like an extra step to uncover each student’s “why,” but considering the length of time we are with our students, it is well worth it to make some discoveries about inner motivation. If I know, for example, that a student in my class is obsessed with the culinary arts, I can try and find ways to tie that into academic content where appropriate. In math class, that might take the form of fractions for recipes. In humanities-leaning courses, it might look like a writing assignment or process analysis of how to create a certain food. In science, it might look like a link to the chemistry of baking ingredients. However we do it, being mindful of each “why” unlocks the door to true student investment.

Habit Stacking

When my husband is on dinner duty, he creates a visually appealing vegetable plate and places it in the middle of the table before the main course comes out. As he is busy assembling things, our children sit down and eat quite a lot of vegetables as they start talking about their days. Though my kids don’t realize it, the ready availability of the vegetables makes it more likely they will not only eat them before dinner, but that they will eat more veggies in general. This strategy is known as “habit stacking,” which is detailed in the bestselling book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Essentially, when we make good habits more available and put more obstacles between ourselves and our less desirable habits, we gradually “stack” one good habit on top of another. For example, if I can walk just five minutes a day to start, I may eventually build up to even more walking, or even a strenuous workout.

This strategy also applies to how we motivate students to invest in themselves as learners. If we give students options in manageable chunks, they are more likely to build skills toward achieving larger goals. For example, if students are doing a project on U.S. presidents and the ultimate goal is to deliver a speech about a historical event in the style of that president, we can increase student ownership in a number of ways. To begin, students will enjoy the project more if they can select a president to learn about on their own from a list of available options. If we have a variety of resources readily available, from podcasts to videos to text, they can also choose what to look at first. As their interest in the project increases in conjunction with their level of choice, students are more likely to complete each stage of the process without experiencing friction. In other words, we can make it possible for students to develop smaller habits that build upon one another and lead to the accomplishment not just of larger goals, but also to a lasting sense of agency in the work they do.

Vigilant Maintenance

When I first became an English department chair several years ago, I moved into my new school and discovered that the book storage room was fairly topsy-turvy. About two hours into cleaning, I called my previous supervisor for advice. She said, “Establishing is much harder than maintaining. Once you’ve cleaned and organized, all you need to do is keep it up.” True, it was daunting to dust every shelf and clean sticky spots off tables and the floor, but the end result was worth it. As teachers, we put a lot of work into establishing routines and structures for our classes and often, we set ourselves up to do more work than we need to with maintenance. If our classes rely too much on our actions to run smoothly, students will never feel any responsibility for what they do. Suppose I make all the decisions about how we work. Will students really care about something they had nothing to do with? Instead, what if I asked them for some help? If we’re about to begin a unit on life cycles in science, we could ask students to work in groups to find some good explanatory resources and to present them to the class. The more we get input and share the process of learning, the more likely students are to embrace their involvement. All we need to do is continue to maintain the expectation of their agency once we have established that norm.

Even when we are intrinsically motivated, we experience ebbs and flows in our desire to accomplish goals. For that reason, building good habits and maintaining them is more important than relying on our very human idiosyncrasies. Just as we adults need to find the inner motivation and drive to build good habits and achieve our goals, our students need the same thing to become true owners of learning. Once our classrooms reflect that shared responsibility of both teachers and students, the gains we make in student achievement are well worth any work we do behind the scenes to create the learning environments we truly desire.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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