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Educators are not confused about the need to motivate our students. We can easily acknowledge that a motivated student will engage, persist, and produce results that are superior to students who are not motivated. However, it is just as clear that in working with older students who are struggling in school, we face significant challenges in building on their intrinsic motivation to learn. Students with a history of negative outcomes may be more resistant to motivational overtures. Although educators are considering many new approaches, a growing body of research suggests that we can motivate our students more directly with a thoughtful approach to providing feedback on assignments and tests.
For many students, the return of a test or assignment is the moment they dread the most. It is at that instant that we have their undivided attention and the opportunity to motivate them further. The nature of our feedback on tests and assignments and the way we direct future efforts can motivate students to keep up their personal fight to learn. Feedback provides a tangible, regular opportunity to build a connection with our students. The following practical feedback strategies help motivate students.
Consider using written feedback.
It should come as no surprise that students are very focused on the grade they receive on assignments, and the growing use of of rubrics and bubble sheets has emphasized the bottom line, as opposed to how it was reached. Written feedback that is more diagnostic and directive encourages students to revisit specific errors in thinking. This type of information-oriented feedback leads to greater intrinsic motivation, task engagement, and persistence in completing tasks (Bruning, Schraw, Norby, & Ronning, 2004).
When we take the time to focus student attention on ways to improve, we are saying that we believe in their ability to develop beyond the stated mark. Written comments are also private and allow students to digest your suggestions without the defensive response that can result from a public discussion.
Rethink your approach to handling errors.
There is great value in allowing students to redo assignments and make corrections. By doing so, we are acknowledging the process of learning and not just the product. Students have the chance to practice the suggested approaches, refocus on key concepts, and receive praise for correcting errors. This can positively affect students' understanding as well as their self-efficacy beliefs. If we see errors as opportunities to learn, students will be more likely to see them in the same light.
Try using green ink instead of red.
Research has shown that the color red has negative connotations, both in and out of school. One study showed that the use of red, even in labeling a test, resulted in a 10 percent drop in scores (Science Netlinks, 2007). The explanation is found in avoidance motivation: rather than trying to be successful, subjects were selecting answers to avoid mistakes. With this understanding of the emotive nature of the color red, it seems that using any other color would help students actually read the comments we take the time to write. Using green is a subtle way of saying that hope for forward movement and growth still exists.
When patterns start to emerge, include your students in setting achievable goals.
Talking with your students about setting specific, short-term goals to improve the kinds of errors they are making strengthens the connection between you and each student, clearly demonstrates that you see them as capable of improvement, and involves them directly in their own learning outcomes. Too often, the goals outlined in individualized education programs or other long-term planning documents are just too far in the future to seem relevant and are created without the involvement of the person they are meant to benefit—the student.
These strategies build motivation by focusing on an activity every teacher already does and not on budget allocations or new approaches. Each of these feedback strategies builds a stronger relationship with the student, clearly communicating belief in that student's ability. Acknowledging the effect that our feedback can have on students shifts our thinking as well. Motivating our students becomes an authentic, regular experience that allows us to use their efforts as the vehicle. In this sense, motivating students to learn becomes something we do with them instead of to them.
Bruning, R., Schraw, G., Norby, M., & Ronning, R. (2004). Cognitive psychology and instruction (4th ed.) Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education Inc.
Science NetLinks. (2007). Seeing red. Retrieved from http://www.sciencenetlinks.com/sci_update.php?DocID=323
Terry Heaney is a Learning Strategies teacher at Calgary Academy in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The academy specializes in helping students with learning challenges.
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