Motivating Students

The Myth and Fact

about Motivation

(This article is inspired by and dedicated to Ms. Rupali Jeswal, who is a caring mother, teacher, and healer)

When I first started lecturing at college, I bumped into a serious problem that was, according to my colleagues, pervasive and irreversible. Teachers complained that students, while academically capable, were not applying themselves well in learning. According to them, although students possessed average or above average intelligence, they did not have the motivation to excel and perform at the level of their true potential. Often, students underperformed not because they lacked the intellectual capabilities, but simply because they did not want to achieve the best.

Since I faced the same problem in my own classes, I became personally interested in studying this phenomenon and finding a solution for the same. My reading, interviews, and observations led me to learning an astonishing truth about motivation and how it operates in human life.

Defining Motivation

Motivation encompasses all the bio-physiological, social-psychological, and mental-spiritual drives that govern human functioning. These are essentially internal processes that allow an individual to interact with his/her environment to fulfill his/her immediate and/or distant needs. When motivation is in operation, it affects and is affected by the external environment of an individual. Both internal and external processes interact to formulate the kind of experiences an individual has, at a particular point in time, in his/her life. The collective outcomes of motives-driven behavior (over time, space, and events) make us who we are and what we strive for.

In common terms, motivation drives the human behavior, thinking, and emotion. Our motives, whether they are biologically-originated, spiritually-initiated, or mentally-activated, command the execution of a series of purposeful, systematic, behavioral patterns. The end product of any ‘motive-in-action’ is goal-fulfillment, in the form of need satisfaction.

Motivation in Learning

Let’s go back to my experience in dealing with students who are intellectually capable, but who are seemingly least motivated to achieve the best at school. Traditional viewpoint on motivation would label such students as lazy and de-motivated (not motivated). However, the problem is not as simple as that. These students are NOT lazy. They are anything but de-motivated. If they are truly lazy, then they would not even be there in the class. If they are lazy, they will not wake up early in the morning, clean up, get dressed, and walk all the way from their dormitories to the cafeteria for breakfast, and then to the classroom. There was something else that was missing in the whole equation, and I was determined to find out what it really was.

As I investigated further into the issue, I learned that humans are NEVER de-motivated. When we hear statements such as, “He is a lazy student,” or “He is least motivated,” or “She might as well quit schooling because she is not motivated,” we must dismiss them as a myth. There is no such thing as a ‘de-motivated human’. The only time a human being is de-motivated is when he/she is dead (or asleep). That is when we cease to behave, think, and feel. That is when we become non-existent (or non-functional), hence, de-motivated.

So, how do we explain the behavior of students who, in spite of possessing the intellectual prowess, wish not to apply themselves well in the classroom? Well, there is no simple answer to this question. However, we now know that these students are not necessarily de-motivated in any way. They are highly motivated individuals. The question that parents and teachers should attempt to answer is, “What really motivates them?”

As mentioned earlier, our behavior, thinking, and emotion are all driven by motives. When students display lethargy, indifference, and lack of interest in learning, they are actually telling their parents and teachers that their object-of-desire is not the same as the one held by parents and teachers for them.

The clash of Desires

For example, a student’s object-of-desire might be to own a Transformers toy. At the same time, his parents’ object-of-desire is for him to pay undivided attention in school work, and perform well in the upcoming science test. When the two desires clash, there is an explosion that cause bitterness and unproductivity. As a result, the student might disappoint his parents by not performing on the test the way his parents had expected him to perform (for the simple reason of him not investing time and energy preparing for the test; Instead, his time and energy were directed at wishing/longing for his object-of-desire, which is the Transformers toy). The student on the other hand, might get upset with his parents for coming in the way of his desire to own and cherish a Transformers toy (need not fulfilled).

The example above illustrates the fact that while humans are constantly motivated, they are not motivated or driven toward the same thing. Problems in the classroom, specifically in learning occur when students’ objects-of-desire significantly differ from the ones specified and expected by their families and society. Students are highly motivated, at any given time. However, it is rare to find students who are highly motivated in learning. As such, parents and teachers must realize that their greatest task is to identify ways and implement strategies to create and instill in students LEARNING as their number one object-of-desire! Once students become intensely desirous of learning, nothing and no one can distract or ‘de-track’ them from achieving the best at school. When students reach this state of functioning, they are said to have had obtained an internally driven desire to learn.

The Crux of the Matter

While some needs are biological and can be fulfilled with relative ease, the need to achieve and become successful at school is a matter of choice. It is not hard to motivate children to eat, play, sleep, or even watch a cartoon. However, when it comes to learning, parents and teachers often find themselves in a game of ‘tug-of-war’ with their children. The secret to motivating children in learning is to instill in them the DESIRE TO LEARN. Ideally, this desire is instilled early in the life of a child. However, a desire in anything can be instilled and nurtured in any stage of life. So, parents and teachers CAN help their children to become highly motivated in learning by instilling and nurturing the desire to learn in their children/students, at any given time and place.

Instilling the Desire to Learn

I have discovered the following to be very useful and effective to instill and nurture a desire to learn in children/students:

  1. Talk about school, learning, success, achievement, knowledge, etc. as something positive and beneficial. Mean it, in words and action, that “Learning is rewarding, fun, and life-changing.”
  2. Provide, and talk about heroes or role models who themselves had valued learning and became successful individuals as a result of doing well at school. Don’t go too far looking for such individuals. It can be the child’s grandfather, mother, uncle, cousin, teacher, etc.
  3. Introduce and uphold the reading-culture at home and in the classroom. Our society is contaminated by the MTV-culture where shopping and TV watching have become the main activities of children and youth. If we want our children/students to become people of substance and noble character, we need to encourage them to read. This has to start with us, parents and teachers! Read when you are alone; read when you are with your children/students.
  4. Play an active role in children’s/students’ learning experiences. Be a part of them. Cherish and celebrate every success achieved. Your attitude toward learning significantly affects your children’s/student’s attitude toward it. Your desire for learning will infect your children/students with a similar desire.
  5. Talk, talk, and talk about learning. Desires are borne out of a constant exposure to something. When we expose children/students to the act of learning and all the rewards and satisfaction that it brings, they will become convinced that it’s worth making LEARNING their number one OBJECT-OF-DESIRE!

Copyright July 2007 by Edward Roy Krishnan, PhD

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