Motivation and Learning

As educators, parents and caregivers, we can often be led astray by the idea that a student must achieve or learn a specific skill or ability. In these moments, we can become wrapped up in the details, timelines, functions, and formats of teaching. We present a subject, skill or idea over and over and still scratch our heads at why it just isn’t sinking in. What we have forgotten (and it happens to us all) is that students will always learn better, faster, and be able to translate their knowledge more effectively when they are presented with something they want to learn or do.

Do kids and teens innately want to learn everything in the curriculum? Absolutely not! So, how do we as educators and parents ignite that sense of motivation? To start, a good way to think about harnessing and activating motivation is to focus on stimulating the intrinsic, not the extrinsic (do well = get a prize), formula. This is outdated and often ineffective.

Intrinsic motivation relies on choice, creativity, autonomy and heuristic tasks (experimenting with possibilities rather than working with a set of rules as with algorithmic tasks). It requires the learner to be responsible in some way for his/her learning, so that a sense of personal involvement and personal achievement will naturally lead to intrigue. On the other side, extrinsic motivation can have the reverse effect. A token reward structure can subconsciously signal that the task linked to the reward is undesirable (“why else would my teacher be promising me computer time in exchange for a complete math worksheet – it must be a bribe!”).

This is not to say that we shouldn’t reward a learner’s success- we definitely should and must. Perhaps though, think about how you might present a lesson or skill in a way that the student is naturally rewarded. Kids love solve-the-riddle math problems for instance. Acting out a historical character (a chance to be silly), shooting a video to accompany and present a poem, reading for clues in a scavenger hunt format or using various math skills to build a 3D model are engaging tasks that require students to use a given skill set, but focus on the creative outcome. We all love to see our hard work come to life.
Additionally, when attempting to motivate a learner (or even yourself), it’s helpful to consider what purpose the new concept or skill serves and frame this accordingly to provide the individual with a sense of why. Those who work and learn in the service of a greater objective often achieve more.

Ultimately, at any age throughout the learning journey humans will be more engaged, attentive, and absorbent of new information if they are motived. When trying to activate this within your student or child, try to move away from the strict learning agenda and prize reward system towards setting up an environment which provides a natural, intrinsic reward, welcomes creativity, and holds a strong purpose for the learner.

For more information on motivation and other learning topics, please contact Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space at 416.925.1225 or visit


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