“For the longest time, school seemed pointless and oppressive, like I just had to jump through hoops. Working hard seemed like selling out. Then in Ms. B’s class we started talking about why school exists and its history. We talked about why it was illegal to teach slaves to read. We talked about the way jobs are changing and how almost all good jobs today involve constant learning. It completely flipped how I think about school. Instead of oppression, I started to see school as empowerment, as a way to prepare myself for better opportunities.”
- A student reflecting on her high school experience
People rarely work hard for no reason. On the other hand, they often work hard when the work serves a purpose they find meaningful, e.g., to provide for one’s family, to help one’s friends or students in times of need, or to improve one’s health. If you can’t find a good reason to do something hard, chances are you won’t do it.
Although we do everything for a reason, research clearly shows that not all reasons are created equal. Some reasons make us feel resentful and depleted. Just imagine someone telling you that you have to do something “because I said so”—it immediately invites resentment and resistance. Conversely, other reasons make us feel proud and energized: think about the feeling you get when you help a student understand something for the first time and you see that “lightbulb” turn on.
Self-Determination Theory provides a useful framework for understanding what motivates people to work hard and persist. Students are more motivated to engage with tasks when those tasks address three fundamental human needs (1):
- Autonomy – “I am choosing to do this.”
- Competence – “This act affirms or grows my effectiveness.”
- Relationships – “This act affirms or improves my relationships.”
Unfortunately, many students never get the opportunity to connect their schoolwork to these deep, powerful motives. They find themselves unmotivated because they can’t answer questions like, “why am I learning this?” Or because they can only generate servile reasons that upset their sense of autonomy, like “to get a good grade” or “because it will be on the test.” Consequently, they are far less motivated than they otherwise would be.
Fortunately, teachers can use a variety of strategies to help students connect their schoolwork to their deep desires for autonomy, competence, and relationships.
Strategy 1: Help Students Discover the Personal Relevance of Learning
Strategy 2: Create Opportunities for Student Choice
We will delve into each strategy in greater detail in the following chapters. Please use the following key to identify different kinds of resources within each chapter:
1. Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (2010). Self-determination. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, 1–2.