Using new research to improve student motivation

By Sarah McKay, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Teachers know that motivation matters. It is central to student learning; it helps determine how engaged students are in their work, how hard they work, and how well they persevere in the face of challenges. Though we hear mostly about the “achievement gap” between demographic groups, researchers have also identified an “engagement gap,” which the High School Survey of Student Engagement calls “both more pernicious and potentially more addressable.”

Despite its obvious importance, student motivation is not a focus of today’s education system. Motivation is hard to characterize and quantify, and it is influenced by many factors outside the classroom. Partly because of these challenges, many teachers feel they can do little to improve motivation. But a growing body of research shows that they can: teachers can employ a number of strategies that have been proven to enhance students’ engagement in learning.

In a recent Carnegie report, “Motivation Matters: How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement,” Susan Headden and Sarah McKay look at the new psychological and behavioral research focused on building motivation—how students respond to incentives to learn, how they see themselves as learners, and what they consider to be their place in school. The report shows that educators can fortify the non-instructional side of student success in three essential ways.