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One primary issue I have as an Instructor is increasing student motivation. For me, there are only two motivations in life:

  1. Because I enjoy it
  2. Because I need to earn a living

Reason #2 is probably too distant for most students to relate to, and if they don't already have #1, how can I give it to them? I have been fortunate that my interests have led to being able to support myself (by programming and by teaching it), but from what I can tell, most young people are not really interested in anything at all, which is breathtaking. So, to avoid a future failure of #2, and intense boredom from lack of #1 throughout schooling, how can I encourage interest and motivation?

To explain why this is so important, I quote from the Computing Ed Research Blog (emphasis in original):

If the only educated people in our society were the ones who wanted to learn (at the start, from the beginning of a class), our society would collapse. We would have too few educated workers to create innovations and maintain the technology we have. Our society depends on teachers who motivate students to persevere and learn.

I have long puzzled over what I see around me: that many people think of their job as just providing a paycheck. I could not survive that way, work has to be interesting also. But now I see that this is not just my problem, it is a problem for society, because unmotivated people will not be creating any new ways to improve our lives and keep the economy going. Apparently the tendency will be for more and more work to be automated, surprisingly not at the grunt level but at the white-collar level. So, we can either get forced out of creative, interesting work by automation, or we can outrun it, creating new opportunities.

How can I motivate students to "persevere and learn"? How do you do inspire interest where it does not already exist? This is my personal blind spot, and I appreciate any suggestions and insights.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to CSEducators. It would be good if you would register here and come back often. The question is intriguing and the problem is an important one. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Feb 8 '18 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ Here's some modern, ongoing research. It's more about teaching faster/better, but it is clear that success motivates and failure demotivates (unless it is followed quickly by success) Stanford Seminar - Learning to Code: Why we Fail, How We Flourish - YouTube $\endgroup$ – Erik Eidt Feb 8 '18 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ How old are your students? What languages and topics are you trying to teach them? $\endgroup$ – Kevin Workman Feb 9 '18 at 1:31
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Your instinct are dead-on. Students, at least in grades k-12, are not terrifically motivated by what they will "need" in the working world. There are plenty of good reasons for this. First of all, what they will do for their work seems very abstract and far-off.

Also, viewed from a vocational lens, there is a quite reasonable shot that they won't actually need the things we think they will. They might not be going into (or might not think they are going into) the careers we are thinking of, and in any case, jobs are so heterogeneous that to make almost almost any statement of what work requires nearly meaningless. Add into the mix the speed at which the world seems to be changing, and our predictive abilities just get worse and worse.

But not everything is lost. People, including kids, are intrinsically motivated to learn when conditions are right. But we have to get a lot of different elements all moving in the same direction, and for some students, this is easier to manage than for others. Some students love school and think of it as a place where they can thrive, but some others are a little broken and burnt out, or feel unsafe either about approaching difficult topics, or about their surroundings, and these problems can make intrinsic motivation very hard to tap into.

The end-goal is to help kids feel safe to try their best, that the ends are actually achievable, and that the material connects to their current world.

-- Organizing the world for motivation --

Teacher Beliefs

Let's start with a few ideas that have to come from the front of the room. Certain teacher attitudes permeate the classroom. These attitudes are not sufficient by themselves to motivate kids, but if they're not there, nothing else is going to go right.

  1. The teacher believes in the material being taught. They think that it is both useful and interesting. (And hopefully a little amazing, too.)

  2. The teacher believes that the students are absolutely capable of learning the material.

  3. The teacher loves their students, and genuinely wants to see those students thrive.

  4. The teacher praises good student practices above and beyond student accomplishments. There is a lot of research to back this up; students who receive praise predominantly for being right, for being smart, or for being the best at things often become wary of difficult material and of the unknown. Why throw yourself into something if you can't succeed like you have in the past?

    By contrast, if you are typically praised for good process or for working hard, then when the material gets hard, that praise still feels quite accessible. You can still organize your own learning and work hard.

Student Beliefs

There are a few things that the students need to know, and these should be directly taught and modeled at every opportunity.

  1. They are safe in school. There are people who care about them, there are people who are their friends, and there are people that they can go to if they are down or get into some sort of trouble. (Particularly in the k-12 arena, this requires some active monitoring on the part of the teacher, and may necessitate some intervention as well. People don't thrive when they are frightened or lonely.)

  2. Intelligence is not fixed. Intelligence is more like a muscle, because you can flex it and make it more powerful over time with work. Improvement is always the goal, not just the end-product.

Classroom Practices

Once the beliefs above are in place, we can actually do the work of motivating the students:

  1. What makes something intrinsically interesting is connections. The more connections that can be drawn from the material to the world that the students already know about, the more intrinsically interesting the material is.

    Those connections can be to the students' social worlds (that's where you end up with entertainment tie-ins; if the kid knows that "all the other kids" think that Beyoncé is cool, then class material that relates to Beyoncé is now instantly connected to that child's social world.)

    Of course, it's better if the connections are deeper and more thoughtful, but if you're working with kids who are difficult to motivate, take no shame in working any angle available to you.

    The more the connections, the better. The richer the connections, the better. The more surprising the connections, the better. Connect ideas to what they've seen in the past. Connect ideas to weird things you've just shown them. Connect ideas to the world around them. Take pains here to make the invisible absolutely explicit.

  2. Help students to monitor their own progress and set their own short-term goals that lead to the big picture that the students can actually accomplish. (This is hard to do. Even adults are often bad at assessing their own understanding, so teachers can create activities to help kids reliably monitor their own learning.)

  3. Keep your criticisms of students both constructive and loving. Always make explicit how your criticisms are really aimed at helping the student, NOT cutting them down, and make clear that there will be accompanying support to help the student learn to do better.

It is achievable

It is. It's not easy, but it's possible to get kids really excited about learning all sorts of things. If you watch some videos of amazing teachers (YouTube is an incredible resource here), you can watch this motivating work taking place at every grade level and in every sort of classroom imaginable.

Learning to apply these ideas to your classroom is hard. Watch an amazing third-grade music teacher, and then watch an amazing 11th-grade math teacher, and their practices will seem very different at first glance, but the core underlying ideas are actually the same.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good answer. Short term goals and a connection to the instructor is important. Also, in CS, you are likely to be able to provide some examples of programmers/engineers/hackers that a young student would want to emulate. A lot of the motivation in technical courses was the professor or relative who I knew to be a practical joker who would pull of awesome pranks with their technical aptitude. Not a lot of kids spend their weekends winding their own tesla-coils without someone they want to impress. $\endgroup$ – Gorchestopher H Mar 5 '18 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ @GorchestopherH What a vivid image that is! $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Mar 5 '18 at 23:31
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I'm not a teacher, but based on my experience as a student, I would suggest that you try to show them what they can make out of it or what it does in actual everyday life.

Me and most of my classmates were always complaining among ourselves, saying things like:

But why do we have to learn it. It's useless and we will forget it by the next week.

We were right, by the way. Not all of the students will major in your class. There will always be a good amount of students who don't care about the class. They just want to pass it.

This being said, presenting application of those subjects that impacts their life directly can be a huge motivation for a lot of students. At least that is what I and my classmates felt like. I don't think much changed, I mean I graduated from college 2 years ago.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Computer Science Educators. Having input from the student's perspective can be quite helpful. Hope we see you around here often. Since you have survived the education process and graduated, can you now give specific examples that would have made a difference in how you, and your classmates, viewed the subject and what would have encouraged you to persevere and learn? $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Feb 22 '18 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver thanks for the feedback but im not sure I understood your request quite well. Can you explain more or be more specific $\endgroup$ – Andam Feb 23 '18 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ Can you edit your answer to include some specific examples that would have been helpful to you. Examples for what could be made out of something you learned or how something you learned has an everyday life usage. Things that you didn't know then, but have found or discovered since graduation. As you have graduated recently your memory of classwork is still moderately fresh, and can still connect things taught in class to things in your life now. Some of us have been out of school so long that the memories are mostly cobwebs. Fresh eyes are helpful. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Feb 23 '18 at 4:04
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver Its clear now, I will try to write some useful ones. $\endgroup$ – Andam Feb 23 '18 at 14:18
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There are many ways to motivate students, but it is a personal, not a group thing. The first thing to keep in mind is that your job is not to deliver material. Wikipedia etc. can do that just fine. You have a different job.

Teaching requires a personal relationship between teacher and student

Think Socrates and the Socratic method. You need to speak, somehow, to each student.

Some students will be motivated by you, personally, and your story. But that requires that you open yourself to them.

Some students are motivated by solving hard problems. Some by visible progress as they learn. Some by any success, no matter how small.

Some students are motivated by a relationship with their peers. Some by competition with their peers.

Some students have hidden motivations (in life) and you might be able to find out a bit about that.

You can exploit all of that depending on how you teach the class and think about each student in front of you. Hopefully it is a reasonable number.

But an additional problem you face is that many of your students don't really know how to learn. I've noticed that in recent years many students have been neglected. They don't know how to listen in class or how to take notes. They don't know how to separate the big ideas from the details. They don't know how to review. They don't know how to ask for help without losing "face." You may have to teach them how to do all of those things.

There are many ways to do all of these things. Group work has helped in my courses. Student research on problems they propose themselves. Asking questions at the end and beginning of a class period helps ("What is the big idea today", (What were three big ideas yesterday?", "Why is ... important?") Praise them in public and privately.

I once had to scare a group of students, but was careful to lead them to a better path immediately.


You also need to remember that your students are not like you. If you teach grad school they may be, but otherwise, not so much.

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First day of class I have this conversation with my students. I ask them if they want to be successful - notice I don't say have a job, or make money. They all respond "of course". Then I go around the room and ask each of them to describe something at which they have become successful and how they achieved success. They all mention hard work, practice, time, effort. Then I tell them they have to do the same thing in my class to be successful, to learn. They will pretty much agree with that. Then of course some of them will say, well I don't want to learn THIS, I don't want to be successful at THIS. Then I respond, OK, I understand that you don't want to learn THIS, but guess what? By being in my class and learning THIS, something you don't really want to learn, you are PRACTICING learning for the things you DO want to learn. You are learning how to learn. And they will usually agree with that also, reluctantly. Then as the semester goes on, when I hear them say things like "why do I have to learn this", or "I don't want to do this", I remind them, I ask them, "you may not want to learn this, but remember, by doing this, you are learning how to ____________". And they fill in the blank. "I am learning how to learn."

That sounds simplistic...but maybe I get through to a few.

Edit: I was thinking more before bed, and I reread the other answers, and I want to cast my vote with the responses about relationships. Sometimes the only thing we can achieve with certain students is a relationship. The only thing they may learn in our classes is that we value them and believe in them. That may not motivate them TODAY, but it may motivate them another day in another situation.

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The OP lists "two motivations in life", which perhaps are universal. If someone is interested "because they enjoy it" (reason #1), then that would play out regardless of money being involved, or social support or anything else. This means that the subject is a primary interest.

If they are interested "because they have to make a living" (reason #2) then that means the student is learning something in service to some other goal. We have seen this issue come up in other questions and answers. It is the Great Divide of motivation, and people on either side cannot seem to understand the folks on the other side.

I am pretty sure that every sort of learning is either inherently interesting to that particular learner, or is being learned to further something else that is the actual interest. The problem that I have is to determine how to instill a primary interest? For some (like me), the subject must be interesting for its own sake, for others, some external motivation is good enough. Ordinary school subjects must be taught regardless of interest because they form the basis for further learning. But non-ordinary subjects, like Programming or Computer Science, should only be taken up by those who either are inherently interested, or can clearly draw a path through them to another goal. They should not be part of the general curriculum, pushed on everyone as 'literacy'. It is not.

Perhaps by breaking down the issue of Motivation in to these two sides, we can make some headway on it?

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I am a big fan of Bem's theory of self perception when it comes to student motivation.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-perception_theory

On one occasion I attended a staff meeting where the Head of Department asked how we could reward students who tried hard. Various lecturing staff suggested treats, days out, cinema vouchers. I said "extra homework" which made everyone stop short, but I was right. For a student that is motivated, extension exercises are a good reward.

To get students to have intrinsic motivation I argue that a teacher should never use rewards. Any clever student will reason that if a reward is offered for completing an activity then this indicates that without the reward the student might not do the activity i.e. this is an activity the student does not want to do.

Instead offer a barrier to participation. Now the student reasons that the barrier is there because the activity has an intrinsic reward so great that the barrier is worth overcoming. So in my class only those students who have completed their theory homework can take part in practical lab sessions.

Seems to work ;)

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