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  • Writer's pictureVrije Universiteit

Motivation Regulation Support at School

by Hanna Järvenoja, Marika Koivuniemi & Tatiana Shubina from Learning and Educational Technology research unit from University of Oulu, Finland

When learning and commitment to schoolwork is discussed, it is not uncommon to end up with questions such as “Are my students motivated ?”, “Why do my students seem unmotivated ?” or “How do I know that they are motivated ?”. Too often it seems that motivation is seen as something that is a static characteristic of an individual: the student is either motivated or not to read, to learn a language, to engage in math calculations. The list is endless.

Motivation is, indeed, a personal feature and not everyone can be consistently and equally motivated by the same things. The good news is, however, that learning motivation is something that can be affected and modified every day. This means that we don’t need to settle to the current state of affairs. Through regulation of motivation, each of us's motivation can be influenced in the situation, right now. Regulating motivation is part of self-regulated learning skills and is an essential 21st-century skill. Hence, the legitimate question is not who is motivated, but who can regulate students' motivation? Is it only the students themselves (after all, it is their motivation we are talking about)? Or, can a teacher help or support motivation regulation? And, if so, why and how to do that?

Ideally, students have the skills to regulate their motivation. And they also want to use these skills. However, we know from research that this is not something that can be taken for granted. Students are not always equipped with required skills (and they should not be assumed to be, as they are still learning the SRL skills in general). Nor they are always committed to using skills even if they possess them. That is why teachers play an essential role in supporting students’ motivation regulation in everyday school life. By supporting their students’ motivation regulation skill development, teachers can (1) help students to become self-regulated learners (2) but also help them to create and maintain engagement to learn in that particular time and context.

With time and regular support from teachers, students can learn to regulate and control their motivation independently. Helping students to learn to regulate motivation requires, first of all, long term commitment. In addition, helping your students in motivation regulation calls for the understanding of the different motivational struggles that can be faced, what motivation regulation actually is and processes that lead students towards a motivated learning path. Students are struggling with various motivational problems that relate to many different motivational constructs. The knowledgeable teacher who knows her/his students’ is the best expert to recognise them. But also teachers need help to create this knowledge base. That is why we will next focus on two particular issues which researchers have identified to be influential and which you can address as a teacher. Namely, we are going to have a look at the motivation regulation strategies concerning goal setting and interest enhancement. We will discuss how the teachers can support a fruitful motivation regulation through them.

Goal setting helps in many ways.

The proximal goal setting technique is a useful approach to divide long-term goals into feasible short-term goals. Additionally, it is valuable to promote mastery-oriented goals, in other words, emphasize the learning and understanding (as opposed to measuring, comparing and performance). This can be done, for example, by underlying the importance of the learning process and not focusing only on the result. As a reaction to a failure teacher may say: "Even though you have not got the correct result, you have tried hard and thanks to your persistence you were learning". Or a teacher can develop tasks that have several solutions. A mastery-oriented practice can be any activity, which does not involve a comparison of the results, competition or external rewards. Instead, it includes the understanding of what students learn and why, and the acknowledgement of the process (e.g. science experiment or joint essay writing) by helping students to reflect how they worked and ended up to the results they achieved. Teachers can also encourage students to find and define their own specific goals within the task requirements. For example, students can be prompted to relate the topic to their other interests and set their personal goals that align with general task goals.

However, keeping a focus on the mastery approach, one should not wholly neglect the performance approach. We can imagine that students' motivation is fire, while mastery orientation is a log, allowing burning in the long run. Performance orientation in this imaginary picture is lighter fluid, which we occasionally need in small quantities when the fire is dying out. We need performance goals from time to time when we want to boost students' motivation. Therefore, competitive practices and external rewards can be particularly suitable for unmotivated students if it helps to light the fire.

In a nutshell, through a proper combination of mastery and performance approaches together with efficient goal-setting, a teacher can lead unmotivated students towards performance approach and performance-focused students towards mastery approach.

Enhance students' interest.

Sometimes students do not want to participate in a specific activity. That is, they are not situationally interested. To enhance students' situational interest, teachers can create a vibrant, problem-based learning environment, which can catch and hold students' attention.

For example, while delivering a material, it might be helpful to highlight the novelty, meaningfulness, personal relevance, and the relation between the learner and the content. Personal anecdotes and practical illustrations might be useful to alter a long lecture. In terms of activities, researchers identify do-it-yourself and hands-on projects, science demonstrations, group work, and games as especially beneficial for situational interest development.

Also, sharing control over the learning environment could be another motivational regulation strategy to support students' situational interest. Still, a more challenging situation is when students have no interest in a particular subject at all. That is, they are not individually interested. Some researchers advocate that it is necessary to align school subjects/activities to students' individual interests so that students are more engaged in school work. However, in practice, this approach seems neither sensible nor feasible. Given that situational interest develops into individual interest, it is advisable to focus on students' situational interest, and on the ways to trigger and maintain it. When students learn new, exciting things, they might change their opinion about the whole subject.

To conclude, it is good to remember that motivation is fuel for learning, and even skilful learners may sometimes struggle with motivational problems. For that reason, motivation regulation is so important! Even if it sometimes feels too challenging, we encourage teachers to consider how students’ motivation regulation is supported in everyday practices. In the long run, this may turn surprisingly beneficial and helpful for other daily school activities. Not to mention how strong grounds it creates for students’ learning skill development.

Still, motivation is not something you can give to students. The best we can do is to support our students’ motivation regulation and open the world for them to explore!

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