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Virginia Journal of Education

Carrots, Not Sticks

What the research shows about motivating your students.

By Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober

Our review of research on aspects of student motivation and efforts to improve it reveals several cross-cutting themes:

•   Student motivation is not a fixed quality but is something that can be influenced in positive or negative ways by schools, parents and communities and by individuals’ own experiences. Research offers lessons on how and why students are motivated and what types of policies and practices hold promise for improving motivation.

•   No single strategy will work to motivate all students. Motivation varies, not only among students but also within the same student depending on the task and context. Motivating students often requires a combination of strategies that address the specific reasons why a student has become disengaged from school.

•   Strategies to improve motivation should be implemented carefully and thoughtfully.  Effective strategies address some or all of the four dimensions of motivation, including competence, control/autonomy, interest/value, and relatedness. Effective school- based strategies to bolster motivation are often implemented in concert with changes in curriculum and instruction, faculty and student relationships, or school climate and organization.

•   Strategies that reward students’ mastery and growth appear to be more motivating than those that emphasize the attainment of a specific performance level. Similarly, strategies that encourage perseverance, hard work, exploration and creativity and that reward behavior within the student’s control appear to be more motivating than those that reward talent and intelligence or impose goals that students have not embraced.

•   Improving student motivation cannot be accomplished by schools alone. Efforts to develop motivation should begin early and address social factors that can sap motivation. Partnerships among schools, families and communities can be effective in creating the conditions that develop and support motivation in children.

•   Many aspects of motivation are not fully understood, and most programs or studies that have shown some positive results have been small or geographically concentrated. Additional research and programs would be helpful in expanding knowledge of how motivation works and which strategies are effective for increasing it.

Actions That May Help Improve Student Motivation
Although research on the impact of programs to improve motivation is limited, our analysis suggests some ideas for actions that schools, families, communities and others can take to foster students’ academic motivation. The list below is just a starting point and is meant to stimulate discussion about a fuller range of options.

Think carefully about the pros and cons of instituting a reward program to spur students’ motivation. If a school does opt for such a program, consider building in the following characteristics:

* Reward students for mastering certain skills or increasing their understanding rather than for reaching a particular performance level or outperforming others.

* Target behaviors or tasks that students feel are achievable, clearly articulated and within their control.

* Reward tasks that are challenging enough to maintain students’ interests but not so challenging as to undermine students’ feelings of competence.

* Consider offering rewards linked to academics, such as books, rather than cash or non-academic rewards.

* Allow students to choose whether to pursue a reward.

* Provide rewards promptly enough so that students see a clear link between their actions and the reward.

* Have teachers or other individuals of social importance give out the rewards.

* Take care not to condition students to depend on a reward.

If assessments are being used as motivational  tools, consider these elements when designing and administering assessments:

* Recognize that the most motivating assessments are those address the key dimensions of competence, control, interest or value, and relatedness.

* Make students aware of what they need to learn to do well on the assessment.

* Keep in mind that assessments which reward creativity, effort, growth and strategizing can have a stronger effect on motivation than assessments that emphasize competition or performance levels.

* Consider administering more frequent assessments that start with easier goals and gradually increase in difficulty or providing students with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge with performance tasks or low-stakes tests before taking an assessment that counts.

* Recognize that high-stakes assessments, as well as some types of test preparation that go along with them, can have a negative effect on the motivation of some students by evoking anxiety, frustration or fear of failure or by causing some students to lose interest in instruction.

Give thought to adopting programs that encourage students to view postsecondary education as a goal. These programs can be motivating, especially if they incorporate the following aspects:

* Provide academic, social and other supports in addition to scholarships to ensure students who aspire to postsecondary education are prepared for the challenge.

* Provide access and encouragement for students to enroll early in the type of courses they will need to be ready for college.

* Provide students with information, advice and guidance about college admissions requirements, entrance exams, applications and financial aid.

* Create a “college-going culture” in which teachers, administrators and other students reinforce the message that postsecondary education is a viable and important goal. Help students understand how postsecondary education applies to their personal life goals.

Institute programs to provide low-income and disadvantaged parents with information and resources to help them become better “first teachers” of their children.

Consider adopting programs to identify and address the academic and other needs of potential dropouts and other students who show signs of low motivation.

Provide professional development to teachers on encouraging student motivation:

* Help teachers learn to identify students who are at risk of low motivation or have social, emotional or developmental challenges that could affect motivation.

* Share ways that teachers can foster motivation in their own teaching through such means as holding high expectations for all students, increasing students’ autonomy, emphasizing mastery over performance, or creating an environment where students are willing to take risks without fear of failure.

* Inform teachers about ways to effectively engage families in learning.

Consider aspects of school organization that could improve students’ achievement and motivation, such as creating smaller schools or schools-within-schools, or implementing block scheduling or looping. Recognize that these approaches are most effective when combined with strong curriculum and instruction, teacher training, attention to school climate, positive faculty-student relationships, and other elements.

Think about providing alternative learning approaches, such as inquiry-based learning and service learning, for students who are unmotivated in traditional classrooms. If these programs are offered, keep in mind that they are most effective when they are aligned with a strong curriculum, are relevant and interesting to students, foster connections between what’s being learned and how it can be applied, allow for reflection and assessment, and emphasize problem solving and collaboration.

Provide extracurricular activities that appeal to a range of interests and encourage as many students as possible to participate.

Investigate new applications of technology that can make learning and assessments more engaging to students.

•   Hold high expectations for your children’s learning and believe in their competence. Emphasize effort over innate ability. Praise children when they’ve mastered new skills or knowledge instead of praising their innate intelligence.

•   Encourage children’s curiosity, exploration, persistence and problem-solving. Expose them to new experiences.

•   Take an active interest in your children’s education. Provide a stimulating learning environment at home, which does not have to involve elaborate resources. Make reading materials available and discuss new ideas or experiences with your children.

•   Recognize that using rewards and punishments for academic performance can discourage some children from developing intrinsic motivation.

•   Talk to your children’s teachers or school about programs to help parents become partners in learning.

•   Be aware of who your children’s friends are and what messages they are sending about academics.

•   Adopt policies and programs to provide disadvantaged families with the resources they need to prevent gaps in achievement and non-cognitive skills from forming.

•   Provide supports, such as scholarships, mentoring and information about college requirements, to encourage children to set college attendance as a goal.

•   Establish extracurricular clubs and other activities outside of school that can foster interest in academics and provide students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with ways to demonstrate their competence.

Student motivation is a critical part of success in education and later life, but it has often been overlooked in the national push to reform schools. The efforts now underway to raise academic standards, improve the effectiveness of teachers, and identify and assist low-performing schools are unlikely to increase student achievement if large numbers of students are unmotivated. The time is right for a national conversation about specific things schools, parents, and communities can do to better motivate children and youth to learn, persevere, and succeed in school and later life.

Usher is a research assistant at the Center for Education Policy (CEP) and Kober is a CEP consultant. CEP is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan organization that advocates for public education and works to help build understanding of the role of public education in a democracy. This article is excerpted, with permission, from a six-part CEP paper entitled “Student Motivation—An Overlooked Piece of School Reform.” For more information, visit CEP’s website,



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