Rueda picRobert 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?

  • First, the child must have an interest in, or place value on, a certain subject.  Students work harder when what they are learning is important and familiar to them. Students must also believe that they are capable of doing well – thus the feedback we give is critical.
  • Students also work harder when they believe that their effort will pay off and when they are able to attribute their success or failure to the quality or amount of effort they expended on a particular task or activity.
  • Finally, we know that students are more motivated when their goal is to achieve understanding (we refer to this as mastery) rather than compete for a grade.

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.

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6 Responses to “Just Because I Know How To Do It Doesn’t Mean I Will…by Robert Rueda”

  1. hilde o' brien on 10/7/09 6:53 PM US/Eastern

    So true. As a correctional educator, I know that relevance leads to interest which leads to achievement.

  2. Michael J. Orosco on 10/8/09 11:57 AM US/Eastern

    Hi, Dr. Rueda

    In regards to Latino English language learner motivation, such as reading and math. How can we develop units of motivation (variance), which at first must be arbitrary, but can iterate along a scale that maintains its supposed measurement value (variant)?

  3. Robert Rueda on 10/8/09 11:37 PM US/Eastern

    I believe that motivation is a big factor in both language acquisition as well as learning in general, but there is still a LOT we don’t know about motivation in various populations like English Learners. I think there is some work to do still in understanding how motivational principles across different cultural and linguistic groups.

  4. Amanda Peterson on 9/25/11 1:07 PM US/Eastern

    Motivation is a key aspect that my school is currently trying to work on. School wide we are implementing a reward system for our students upon mastery of a topic/subject. Our students are constantly being rewarded for the things they can do well. One aspect of this system is helping our students self-regulate their learning. When they are aware of their learning and how the amount of effort they put into a subject is directly related to the result, we can then move forward with motivation. Students analyze their work and discuss the strategies they implemented so that they can see the relationship between the effort they put in and the end product. Although motivation is a work in progress at our school, we are trying to create a school culture that hard work really does pay off.

  5. Croasmun on 9/25/11 3:19 PM US/Eastern

    I agree with you, it is essential for students to have a ‘relationship’ to the learning process. Because if they cannot relate to anything then more likely that they will not learn or struggle to learn. I teach English Language Learners in history and I know that it is important for me to find a relationship between the students and the historical events. Once students relate to any historical event, they will motivate to learn. Again, I agree with you that it is important for students to have an interest in any subject, especially with history.

  6. Emily Ramirez on 9/25/11 9:49 PM US/Eastern

    Mr. Rueda,
    Motivation is certainly one of the key factors in promoting academic success for all students. I don’t believe that students “either have or they don’t.” I truly believe that in order for us to motivate the students/English Language Learners in our public schools, teachers must strive to understand the cultural backgrounds of the students they serve. We must make every effort to present materials that are culturally familiar to them. We should understand that when children never see themselves or their cultures reflected in school, they can be alienated and this in itself, can depress student achievement. Research has shown that students learn more when their classrooms are compatible with their own cultural and linguistic experiences. Effective instruction includes teaching practices that take advantage of student interests which then promotes active engagement. When students are engaged in their learning, academic achievement is attained. When academic achievement is attained the level of motivation increases thus, prompting higher levels of learning to occur.

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