Robert Rueda is a professor in the area of Psychology in Education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. His research has centered on the sociocultural basis of motivation, learning, and instruction, with a focus on reading and literacy in English learners, and students in at-risk conditions, and he teaches courses in learning and motivation. He recently served as a panel member on the National Academy of Science Report on the Overrepresentation of Minority Students in Special Education, and also served as a member of the National Literacy Panel (SRI International and Center for Applied Linguistics) looking at issues in early reading with English language learners.
When I was growing up, I ended up bedridden for a period of time. After endless days of watching cartoons, I was bored. Thankfully, a friend’s mother brought over a box of books which had been sitting in the attic which she had just cleaned out. I picked it up, and for the first time, was interested in reading without being required to. While I had the skill and knowledge to read, I had no reason or interest to do so.
This example illustrates a neglected aspect of schools. Currently there is a lot of attention to student learning – new interventions, new curricula, and increased assessment. Without minimizing the focus on learning or the need for accountability, it seems that a major “hole” in our approach is the relatively little attention we give to student motivation. Our first impulse is to assume that achievement is a knowledge or learning problem. But it is likely that at least some of the time these issues are a matter of students not wanting to do something.
People who study motivation suggest there are ways to tell if low performance is related to motivation. Specifically, problems that relate to choice, persistence, and effort most often have a motivational cause. Schools and classrooms are literally filled with issues related to these areas. Examples might be choosing (or not) to engage in a task; studying or asking for help, staying in school or dropping out; continuing to work hard even when it is challenging; or working hard instead of trying to do the minimum amount to “get by.” Students’ school careers and beyond are significantly impacted by these day-to-day choices.
Most people, and many educators, believe that motivation is an unchangeable characteristic, that is, “you either have it or you don’t” and if you do not you are unlikely to change. Yet most who work in motivation see it as a set of beliefs shaped by a person’s life experiences and the cultural and social contexts in which they function. These beliefs reflect one’s observations about the world and how it operates, one’s sense of efficacy (beliefs about the ability to succeed at a given task), perceptions about the causes of success and failure, the values one places on certain activities, and one’s interests and goals. These beliefs are not fixed, but are dynamic. Fortunately for educators, these can be changed.
What do we need to know to make sure students are motivated?
Unfortunately, these considerations sometimes are lost in the push to raise test scores. Many teachers receive minimal or no training on this, even though a good understanding of these issues could provide a wide set of tools to engage students. It is time we begin to think about the other aspects of student learning that make a difference.