How to motivate people to learn

Learning requires motivation. Whether you are a student trying to learn something, or a teacher helping students learn, you will need to develop strategies to help motivate learning.
Student learning will occur in proportion to the effort that a student puts into learning. Therefore, a key task for the teacher is to encourage and promote student effort. This can be a challenge, even if the teacher creates a supportive learning environment, because many of the factors that influence student learning are affected by the student’s overall attitude, likes and dislikes, feelings about a subject, activity or school in general, and personality.

To improve student motivation, teachers use both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators rely on the value of the content and of learning to the student. Extrinsic motivators rely on the value of reinforcers or rewards to the student.


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Overall incentives
Incentive can be illustrated by an example of animal learning. A hungry rat placed in a maze will quickly learn to make those turns which lead to food. This is a reaffirmation of Maslow's physiological level need. The rat will not take the particular route if the food is not there, or is of insufficient quality and quantity to provide incentive for the rat to go to the food. Thus, an incentive can be regarded as a pulling force, different to a drive, which is a pushing force.

 Let us now consider the individual’s incentive to learn. The incentive to learn may be innate, or it may be acquired. Ask yourself this rather interesting question - If a student didn’t have to learn, would he or she wish to learn? There is no simple answer, since even those students who don’t enjoy learning in the classroom will continue to learn from life experiences and activities that interest them. Also, students who enjoy learning in the classroom may no longer enjoy that learning if there is no longer any achievement. The fact is that learning can be either internally or externally motivated, and different kinds of motivators will influence different learning situations.


 Internal or intrinsic incentives
There are other incentives primarily within oneself, apart from those already stated. These incentives are mainly connected with the person’s attitude to learning, and therefore, teacher motivation should aim at developing and supporting internal incentives. These incentives can include:

Pride in doing things well – Students can find great satisfaction in a task well done, and gain a valuable sense of competence, which in itself can motivate further effort.

The desire for accomplishment – This can be seen in statements such as "I have done all those" of “I have done that”. The individual gains a sense of satisfaction when a task is accomplished, and others may gain satisfaction from completing a task.

Personal ambition -  Some students have a good idea of what they want to achieve later in life, or even just that they do want to achieve and succeed in life. They might value learning as a way of building a future that will bring wealth, prestige, power and other benefits.

Competition with oneself - Students sometimes set their own standards and rate of working. By doing this they are issuing a challenge to themselves and thus providing incentive. They may also measure their success by comparing their achievements or progress to others’.

A sense of control or power – Students can gain a sense of control and power through developing skills and knowledge. A sense of being able to influence their environment is essential to preventing apathy and learned helplessness.

A sense of participation and belonging – Working as part of a group or class can give students a sense of belonging and affiliation. 

Personal relationships – Some students are not as interested in belonging to a group as they are in developing positive relations with individuals. Students can be very impressed by a teacher, and be motivated by a desire to be approved of by that teacher and to make that teacher happy. A student might be motivated by having one good friend who is also learning, and will often be motivated to do well in areas that involve that other student, or where the friend is doing well.

Values and ethics - Different students may have different ethics or values regarding learning and education. Some may feel that education is critical to later success and to an individual’s sense of worth and status in society. Others don’t see it as important.  Some students are motivated by ethics that include honouring family and respect for adults, whereas others are more motivated by values that stress independence and autonomy.   


External incentives
In the classroom, these include rewards, good grades, praise, and any other factor that can introduced into the learning environment. Other external incentives can include social and cultural expectations and values, family expectations, job prospects, or goals that learning can help achieve.

Tangible rewards can be important motivators.  If a student knows they will receive certain rewards for learning or for certain classroom behaviours, that can be a powerful reinforcer. However, tangible rewards are not always the main motivators. In the workplace, security and advancement can be just as motivating as money. In the classroom, prestige, esteem, recognition and family approval of effort can be just as important as good grades. Yet reward systems do get results, so they are a valuable part of a teacher’s motivation strategies.

On the other hand, incentives can demotivate students from learning behaviours. Peer pressure
can have a significant impact on influencing how much a student will study and learn, and how willing he or she is to behave in ways that promote learning. Many otherwise capable and motivated students under perform to avoid being called ‘eggheads’ or to fit in with peer groups who do not value learning – or do not succeed in the classroom.


The relational character of incentives
An important part of motivation is the value to the person of the goal, object, situation or type of activity toward which the motivated person is striving. In animal research, the quantity of food in the goal ox will determine the speed of a rat through the maze. Don’t we all work harder for greater reward? This is the relational character of incentives, and unfortunately, it is often overlooked.

Crespi (1942) demonstrated that rats ran much faster after being shifted from four units of food up to sixteen units than after a shift from sixty four units down to sixteen units. 
Some rats even refused to eat after this cut in reward. The same kind of disappointment was illustrated more dramatically by Tinklepaugh (1928). He trained a monkey to retrieve food which it had been allowed to see placed beneath one of two boxes. Tinklepaugh allowed the monkey to see him place a banana beneath one of the boxes, but then he surreptitiously substituted a piece of lettuce for the banana. When the monkey was allowed to choose between the two boxes it correctly selected the one which was supposedly concealing a banana. Finding only lettuce, the monkey turned over the other box, which was empty. The frustration was too much for the monkey; it then threw the lettuce at Tinklepaugh - lettuce is just not good enough when the expectations are for a banana.

You should have little difficulty in remembering similar examples from your own experience. Keep in mind, though, that a greater reward does not necessarily refer to the amount of reward. It can also refer to the greater value that we place on the reward. A rat will not work hard for large amounts of a food that it does not like. Similarly, one student might be highly motivated by a B (or high) grade where another might not consider this worth extra effort. Or one student might be motivated by being given an independent project, where another person might be motivated by group work.

Crucial to motivation is the anticipation or expectation of a desirable outcome. We evaluate incentives according to our expectations of outcomes, and to the value that we place on those anticipated outcomes.


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Enhancing intrinsic motivation
When a student is motivated to learn by intrinsic factors, the learning becomes its own reward. The student enjoys learning, and that enjoyment and enthusiasm can remain part of that student’s learning all through life. Enhancing intrinsic motivation should be the main goal of motivation. Motivation that relies on rewards – extrinsic factors – will fall or cease when those rewards are no longer received, or when they are reduced.

There is some research to indicate that reliance on extrinsic motivation actually destroys intrinsic motivation. However, extrinsic motivation can also increase intrinsic motivation if quality of performance is rewarded, and the task is not very interesting anyway.

Some ways to enhance intrinsic motivation are:

Creating interest and enthusiasm for gaining knowledge –  by relating it to everyday experience or to students’ areas of interest and abilities (eg. “Today we will look at ways to handle criticism – These can put you back in control of a situation, even if the criticism is intended to be hurtful”).

Developing curiosity – by demonstrating something you intend to explain, surprising students, using doubt, contradiction or prediction to lead into a topic

Involving students in a game or simulation – which can involve students in finding their own answers, or experimenting or learning about a process by doing.


Social reinforcers as incentives
In human motivation, social reinforcers such as verbal praise, expressions of approval, and a reassuring smile are much more common incentives than food and water, which are so important for motivating a deprived animal in a laboratory. Parents, teachers, friends and employers all use social reinforcers to motivate for greater effort. Even when grades sometimes seems the primary incentive for learning, social approval may be just as important.

The motivating power of social incentives tends to lose its value if used in an indiscriminate manner. The teacher who praises everyone and each level of performance finds that such praise subsequently becomes ineffective as a motivator. When a student knows that the set standard is high, then the smallest morsel of praise becomes a high compliment and much effort is put into the task in order to receive this compliment. it is not the absolute amount of praise or approval which we receive that establishes the level of motivation, it is how the amount compares with what has been received in the past or what one could reasonably expect to attain.

The power of social reinforcers is confirmed by research. Biswas found that extrinsic and intrinsic motivators differ between men and women.  Using terms from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, women have a greater need for self-actualization, security and the meeting of physiological needs than men, whereas they have fewer requirements for their social and esteem needs to be met at work.  It would be interesting to find out how this translates into the classroom. Some teachers do report that female students tend to meet their primary social needs out of the classroom, and that female students often give great importance to meeting esteem needs in the classroom.
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