Motivation in the classroom

To increase motivation in the classroom, praise effort, not intelligence.

The beliefs or opinions we hold about ourselves and our ability to learn influence directly what we learn and how well we learn it.

If we tell ourselves we can or cannot learn a subject or develop a skill, the result of our effort is determined before we start. Such is the power of language.

How language influences motivation in the classroom

The beliefs or assumptions that parents, teachers, and students hold about learning are language actions. These actions generate specific emotions and behaviors which either support or oppose learning in students. Because language creates reality, as well as describes it, language is often the primary reason for a lack of motivation in the classroom.

When parents praise their children for being intelligent, they do so out of the belief that praise will increase their child’s self-esteem and boost their classroom performance. But recent research suggests that undeserved and unearned praise may actually be causing them to under-perform.

In her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck suggests that when we praise children for their intelligence, "we tell them that is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

This sets up a belief in students that mistakes are evidence that they are not really smart at all. Any effort or struggle to learn is added evidence. “If I am smart,” the student tells himself, “I shouldn’t have to try so hard. I should be able to learn quickly and easily.”

Besides leading students to think their intelligence is what makes them valuable, these beliefs also make them feel vulnerable, so they choose to play it safe. They focus less on learning and more on not making mistakes.

They avoid asking questions or volunteering answers, choose subjects and activities at which they know they already excel, and pass up assignments and courses that will challenge them, but possibly expose them as frauds. The result: their performance drops.

The role of praise for increasing motivation in the classroom

Praise has its merits, but only so far. Praise can be effective if it is based on a specific skill or talent a child possesses, and if it is sincere.

But if praise is not specific or sincere, students interpret it as a sign they need encouragement because their natural abilities are in some way lacking. Dr. Roy Baumeister discovered that esteem building praise, even for college students in danger of failing, lowers their grades instead of raising them.

To improve motivation in the classroom, it is better to praise students for their effort rather than for their intelligence. Emphasizing intelligence takes success out of the control of students, but emphasizing effort gives it back to them. They can’t choose the abilities and talent they were born with. They can choose how hard they want to work.

In her studies, Carol Dweck found that in two groups of students of similar age and ability, those who were told “You must have worked really hard” after completing a test did better in subsequent tests than students who were told “You must be smart at this.” Language not only describes reality; it creates it.

Change language to improve motivation in the classroom

Research shows that students who have been taught that intelligence can be developed improved in their study habits and their grades. Just by being aware that their abilities can be developed changes their opinions about themselves and their ability to learn.

One benefit is that they see their basic qualities as starting points that can be developed through effort and experience. And since mistakes are seen as part of the learning process, they are opportunities to further their development rather than possibilities they should fear.

They also learn to study for the joy of discovery and understanding rather than having to prove themselves to teachers, parents, or peers. They learn to stay with what they love doing, even when it gets difficult.

Finally, knowing they can create their own future, they stop sticking with what they are already good at and take on more challenging questions and subjects. Since effort, not talent, is the magic ingredient for success, they know they will be left behind if they play it safe and don’t challenge themselves.

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