One of the great conundrums of human history has surely been how to motivate teens to do what society wants them to do rather than what they themselves want to do. Your average high schooler may happily spend marathon sessions practicing sports, playing games, or just scrolling through social media but still balk at ten minutes of homework or chores.
Unsurprisingly, researchers have been delving the depths of student motivation for decades, exploring a variety of angles across age groups and cultures. Some of the findings aren’t that surprising either, though others seem rather unexpected. An overview of the current research encompassing over 144 studies and more than 79,000 students has been published as Pathways to Student Motivation: A Meta-Analysis of Antecedents of Autonomous and Controlled Motivations, and the key takeaways of this meta-analysis are powerful:
Students’ self-determined motivation (acting out of interest, curiosity, and abiding values) is associated with higher academic well-being, persistence, and achievement. Self-determination theory posits that self-determined motivation is dependent on the satisfaction of three psychological needs (relatedness, competence, and autonomy), which are in turn facilitated through need-supportive behaviors from notable others…
Results show that teacher autonomy support predicts students’ need satisfaction and self-determined motivation more strongly than parental autonomy support. In addition, competence is the most positive predictor of self-determined motivation, followed by autonomy and then by relatedness.
That intrinsic motivation drives real achievement is no secret to any of us who work closely to help students improve grades and test scores. Self-Determination Theory attributes most significant gains in learning to intrinsic motivation and internalized forms of extrinsic motivation. This new clarification regarding which facet of motivation matters most, however, can help educators engage students in learning more effectively. For example, knowing that a sense of competence can be the best first step towards a desire for mastery suggests that students should be met within their current comfort zones, then scaffolded out to new areas of achievement.
The revelation that teachers exert more influence over student motivation than do parents may surprise those who don’t see teachers as coaches. But how might teachers improve their ability to motivate their charges? Julien Bureau, associate professor at Université Laval in Quebec and lead author of the study, recommends the following specific strategies:
1. Listen to the thoughts and feelings of students and respond to them with empathy.
2. Explain rules and requirements so that students can understand why they’re being asked to do them.
3. Give students choices and allow them to personalize assignments.
Of course, nobody says that parents don’t play a major role in cultivating the kinds of intrinsic motivation that drives success. Often, a parent’s advantage lies in the ability to recognize what their teen really cares about already and use that as a channel for success in related endeavors. As Jerry Seinfeld said, the path to true greatness is not will but love.