Ask most teachers and they'll tell you that the ideal learning scenario is when students become passionate about a subject and begin actively engaging, participating, and self-teaching themselves with minor course correction or feedback from the instructor. How,, though, to reach that point?
One of the major challenges I face as an educator is how to motivate my students. Because we are an after school academy, I can't leverage the threat of a permanent grade that has a bearing on a student's potential future like a traditional school.
How then, do you get kids to do anything? Sure, some of them will of course willingly participate and engage, but I've found that without some sort of external pressure it can become extremely difficult to get students going.
Here are three things that I've found helps motivate my students:
When students work as a group, they have to hold each other accountable. The external pressure from a group environment is often strong enough to get them to participate, engage, and learn as a collective unit. Sometimes a strong leader in a group can lift the others up as they influence the whole by creating a culture of accountability and respect. Sometimes a student may have to step up in a void of ability or leadership and discover they are capable of more than their previously held perceptions. When collaboration works, it's a beautiful thing.
On the flip side, sometimes group projects can go spectacularly wrong. This in and of itself is a learning experience, in my opinion. After all - most paths in life revolve around working or getting along with others. Better to learn young how you function in a group ( emotional intelligence) so that you can better deal with those types of environments that become more inevitable with age.
The worst case scenario? The diffusal of responsibility. Instead of students holding each other accountable, egos dictate that of course it is not the individual's fault and the others share a greater burden in the collective failure. Fingers are pointed, frustrations raised, and excuses multiply in a petri dish. Parents can also be particularly guilty of this. Not my child, it was clearly X, Y, or Z's fault.
Success has many parents but failure is almost inevitably always an orphan.
Competition provides two important drives: deadlines and awards.
Deadlines focus students on the task at hand and create linear pressure to perform and deliver by a certain date. As a deadline approaches, any party will naturally work harder to meet the deadline and deliver a final product - whether in the form of an essay, pitch, deck, speech, etc. As a creative, I know that without hard deadlines projects and tasks sometimes feel intangible and loose. A hard and firm date gives me something to aim for which in turn transforms ideas into deliverables.
And who doesn't love an award? Awards are a confirmation of our abilities and perception of self. They help fuel confidence: in my opinion one of the most important predictors of future success. Some students naturally have a ton of confidence, while others need their confidence built up. Competition is one process by which confidence can grow leaps and bounds with a great result.
On the flip side, missing too many deadlines can become habitual for a student, and habits are hard to correct. Similarly, confidence is a fragile thing at the best of times. A series of bad results or lack of external confirmation can lead someone to question their own worth. It's important as an educator to remind students that while competition is important, it does not ultimately define who you are unless you let it.
Projects ask people to work together to create something. By nature, projects are defined by their participants within a given prompt. That prompt may be something like a skit or play, science experiment, or business proposal. Regardless, all projects require participants to create, and creation implies ownership.
Project based learning thus inherently encourages students to take ownership of their educational experience. Whatever they create is in some ways a reflection of their personalities and abilities. The presence of an open ended, abstract prompt creates agency through the inherent question: what do you think is a good idea?
My students are accustomed to being told what is good, worthy, or valuable. Read these works of literature. Learn these equations. Acquire these skills. And yes - all of which they are being encouraged to learn has of course been vetted by countless educators, agencies, and society at large. Being told what to do is at the opposite end of asking someone: what would you do?
Projects thus put the onus on students by asking them to evaluate, set criteria, validate, and execute. These are all things most of us working adults have to go through daily, so why not emphasize that in what we teach?
On the flip side, sometimes project scopes can be too broad, the prompts too abstract. The endless possibilities of the infinite can become paralyzing. In writing, this is known as "the blank page syndrome." Any sort of education requires guidance - I don't think you can just say "here's a project! have at it!" and be done with it. Doing so only compounds the issues inherent in both Collaboration and Competition.... Projects are a mulitiplier that cuts both ways.
What have you found effective in motivating students? What is the ideal situation for you to learn in?
Let me know in the comments below!