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Motivation in a Digital Environment

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

Student motivation can thrive in an online environment. Teachers always complain that students have been conditioned to only be motivated by carrots and sticks- chasing after the grades and avoiding punishment for refusal to do work or misbehavior. But I would argue that teachers have also been conditioned to believe that it is impossible to move away from this system. Teachers sometimes get stuck in the same patterns and routines because we are too overwhelmed and busy to do much else. It has been a slow transformation for myself, but one that grows more and more rewarding as I add new strategies to my bucket. As many teachers begin to shift to hybrid or all virtual learning environments, we have an AMAZING opportunity to shift those practices so that we truly ENGAGE our students.

Young people are adaptive. We all have heard the familiar adage that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but young people adapt quickly and easily to what is placed in front of them. Give them a new piece of technology and they will become masters of all its functions in hours (maybe even less time). And yes, in this context, the teachers may be the “old dogs,” but I would argue that any teacher that wants to be successful in education must be ADAPTIVE and RESILIENT. We have to meet our students' needs so that they may thrive in the new world in front of them that requires critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. How can we bring out those characteristics in our students? By increasing their intrinsic motivation. You may want to go back and read Motivation 101 before going further. Motivation 101.

How To Increase Intrinsic Motivation in a Virtual Setting:

1. Relationships. Above everything is relationships, ALWAYS, whether learning is taking place in person or outside of the classroom walls. People work harder for people they respect and admire and for those that care for them. If you think of all the bosses you have had, who has inspired you the most? I would bet that most would work harder for the bosses that cared about their employees, respected them and worked hard. Students are not much different. They want to know that they are cared for, respected and that their teacher is working hard for them.

Some teachers may be able to meet their students in person on a hybrid model and it is IMPERATIVE that these teachers get to work right away on forming those relationships. Challenge yourself to learn students' names within a few days, learn their interests (this will come in handy later in more ways than just a relationship), and go to working on goals and conferencing quickly (in a safe manner like a digital notebook with social distancing while communicating with one another). If starting online, work on building those relationships through video conferencing in the first week and require a classroom Zoom (or another medium) meeting to engage the students personally. I like giving them some choice as to when they can work it into their schedule. Choice is a great way to gain compliance. Offer two or three sessions on the same topic. This way they get to choose their time frame, but you also have smaller groups. Work on authentic, meaningful feedback. I would call home to the families and welcome them to your class and tell them anything important you think they might need.

2. Harness Their Interests and Choice (Autonomy). When we are engaged in things that are meaningful to us, we are more engaged in them. Encourage students to work in a way that sparks their interest. By giving choice in HOW they complete their work, they can complete the task in a way they like or a way that they feel comfortable. As teachers, we are driven by standards, but find ways that student’s interests can be incorporated into that learning. Having a feeling of autonomy increases buy-in and motivation. Look at every (or several) assignment you give and consider how you can give more choice. This has been hard for myself because I tend to be a control freak, but I was often surprised with the finished work that my students created. It is a trust fall and mistakes might happen, but I promise it will be worth it in the long run. Remember...I truly believe that adaptation and resilience are some of the top traits of any great teacher. Choice and Voice post

3. Mastery. Daniel Pink calls mastery the desire to improve, it is when one seeks mastery for its own sake. In the Self-Determination theory of motivation it is competence. We are more motivated when we feel like we know what we are doing or when we are pursuing something that we feel we are learning from. When something is too challenging, we may shut down and give up. In the classroom and outside of the brick and mortar classroom, on a virtual model, we need to meet our students' needs with rigor but not leave them hanging without support. Learners need a clear path for success and should be challenged but not feel like it is too difficult to ever attain. Differentiation helps reduce feelings of incompetence, as do choices in how learning occurs and is demonstrated. It is important to foster a growth mindset in the classroom and SHOW your students that you are there to support them (offer this reassurance constantly). I often say, “I know this is a struggle right now, but I am here to help you so this gets easier.” This can be done through virtual conferences, I used a Google Doc with time slots for students to sign up for a virtual meeting this past Spring. If I couldn’t get them to attend one of those time slots, I recorded videos on our LMS and shared with them. Many students reported that it was much more clear, hearing it from me audibly and they had more confidence in their work. This year, I plan on using a Digital Notebook to record goals and conduct reflection of work and conferencing. I will ask them to report in their notebook what they need from me to help them reach their goals. Focus your feedback on one single thing to improve on. If students see a list of all their failures, they will feel incompetent. By sticking with one, you can work on that one skill together and then move on the next important thing to work on. For example, if students are working on essays and the thesis statement is unclear and disorganized, they need this skill before they move on, so even if the boy paragraphs are all messed up too, just tell them that we need to work on the overall organization of the essay and to start, we are going to focus on their thesis statement first.

3. Purpose. Purpose is such an important part of motivation. Humans like to be involved in tasks that are worthwhile. I was THAT student in math class that asked, “Why do I need to know this?” Yes, it was obvious that I would use some math, but other courses, I felt like I had no need for. I was a student that struggled with paying attention, especially in these math classes. I wanted to do better, but it was so hard with so little buy in. Simon Sinek geniusly says, “People don’t buy what and how you do things, they buy WHY you do it.” It is extremely important to explain WHY we are teaching students what we are teaching them. Along with the daily objective, I include a statement on “Why Are We Learning This?” As a Social Studies teacher, I connect the objective to an overall larger theme in history or how we are seeing this still today (relevance). More than just making a statement about WHY they are learning this, it can be implemented in a real-world application as well. If I am teaching them about the House of Representatives, they can learn about their representatives and how to contact them. Any time something can be translated into action, it must be done. Purpose helps spark curiosity and curiosity is essential for motivation.

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