Teaching and Learning Resources by Peter Pappas

How to Motivate Students: Researched-Based Strategies

The student feels in control by seeing a direct link between his or her actions and an outcome and retains autonomy by having some choice about whether or how to undertake the task.

A new Center on Education Policy report, Student Motivation—An Overlooked Piece of School Reform, pulls together findings about student motivation from decades of major research conducted by scholars, organizations, and practitioners. The six accompanying background papers examine a range of themes and approaches, from the motivational power of video games and social media to the promise and pitfalls of paying students for good grades.

Researchers generally agree on four major dimensions that contribute to student motivation (below). At least one of these dimensions must be satisfied for a student to be motivated. The more dimensions that are met, and the more strongly they are met, the greater the motivation will be.

Four Dimensions of Motivation

  1. Competence — The student believes he or she has the ability to complete the task.
  2. Control / Autonomy — The student feels in control by seeing a direct link between his or her actions and an outcome and retains autonomy by having some choice about whether or how to undertake the task.
  3. Interest / Value — The student has some interest in the task or sees the value of completing 
  4. Relatedness — Completing the task brings the student social rewards, such as a sense of belonging to a classroom or other desired social group or approval from a person of social importance to the student.

As the report authors note: The interplay of these dimensions—along with other dynamics such as school climate and home environment—is quite complex and varies not only among different students but also within the same student in different situations. Still, this basic framework can be helpful in designing or analyzing the impact of various strategies to increase students’ motivation.

The report singles out a number of approaches that can motivate unenthusiastic students including inquiry-based learning, service learning, extracurricular programs (like chess leagues) and creative use of technology.

I think increase motivations begins with giving students more responsibility for critical decisions about what and how they learn. I detailed these in my post The Four Negotiables of Student Centered Learning and they are summarized in this table. Teachers need to consider the extent to which they are asking students to manage the four central elements of any lesson – content, process, product and assessment. Any or all can be decided by the teacher, by the students, or some of both. All will assist in building Common Core skills in deeper thinking and analysis.

Students also need guided practice in reflection. Reflection can be a challenging endeavor. It’s not something that’s fostered in school – typically someone else tells you how you’re doing! At best, students can narrate what they did, but have trouble thinking abstractly about their learning – patterns, connections and progress. One place to start is with the reflective prompts I developed in my Taxonomy of Reflection.

The CEP’s summary report and accompanying papers highlight actions that teachers, school leaders, parents, and communities can take to foster student motivation. The following are just a few of the many ideas included in the report:

  1. Programs that reward academic accomplishments are most effective when they reward students for mastering certain skills or increasing their understanding rather than rewarding them for reaching a performance target or outperforming others.
  2. Tests are more motivating when students have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge through low-stakes tests, performance tasks, or frequent assessments that gradually increase in difficulty before they take a high-stakes test.
  3. Professional development can help teachers encourage student motivation by sharing ideas for increasing student autonomy, emphasizing mastery over performance, and creating classroom environments where students can take risks without fear of failure
  4. Parents can foster their children’s motivation by emphasizing effort over ability and praising children when they’ve mastered new skills or knowledge instead of praising their innate intelligence.

Many aspects of motivation are not fully understood, the report and background papers caution, and most programs or studies that have shown some positive results have been small or geographically concentrated. “Because much about motivation is not known, this series of papers should be viewed as a springboard for discussion by policymakers, educators, and parents rather than a conclusive research review,” said Nancy Kober, CEP consultant and co­author of the summary report. “This series can also give an important context to media stories about student achievement, school improvement, or other key education reform issues.”

Learning: from Face-to-Face to Networked Individualism

This afternoon, I picked up the thread of a LinkedIn discussion “Should we let students opt out of face-to-face education?” Excellent observations by over 100 contributors that got me thinking about what’s next for schools?

That led me back to a post I’d saved on my Evernote by George Siemens who wrote

In education, we have decades of reform rhetoric behind us. I have never heard someone say “the system is working”. There appears to be universal acknowledgement that the system is broken.
Classrooms were a wonderful technological invention. They enabled learning to scale so that education was not only the domain of society’s elites. Classrooms made it (economically) possible to educate all citizens. And it is a model that worked quite well.

(Un)fortunately things change. Technological advancement, coupled with rapid growth of information, global connectedness, and new opportunities for people to self-organized without a mediating organization, reveals the fatal flaw of classrooms: slow-developing knowledge can be captured and rendered as curriculum, then be taught, and then be assessed. Things breakdown when knowledge growth is explosive. Rapidly developing knowledge and context requires equally adaptive knowledge institutions. Today’s educational institutions serve a context that no longer exists and its (the institution’s) legacy is restricting innovation.

Digital networks antagonize planned information structures. Planned information structures like textbooks and courses simply can’t adapt quickly enough to incorporate network-speed information development. Instead of being the hub of the learning experiences, books, courses, and classrooms become something more like a node in part of a much broader (often global) network. The shift to networks is transformative in how a society organizes itself (see Wellman’s Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism)

So I followed that link to Barry Wellman who wrote

Members of traditional little-box societies deal principally with fellow members of the few groups to which they belong: at home, in the neighborhood, at work, or in voluntary organizations. …These groups often have boundaries for inclusion and structured, hierarchical, organization: supervisors and employees, parents and children, pastors and churchgoers, organizational executives and members. In such a society, each interaction is in its place: one group at a time.

…Work, community and domesticity have moved from hierarchically arranged, densely knit, bounded groups (“little boxes”) to social networks. … In networked societies, boundaries are more permeable, interactions are with diverse others, linkages switch between multiple networks, and hierarchies are both flatter and more complexly structured. …Rather than fitting into the same group as those around them, each person has her own personal network.

…This is a time for individuals and their networks, and not for groups. The proliferation of computer-supported social networks fosters changes in “network capital”: how people contact, interact, and obtain resources from each other. The broadly -embracing collectivity, nurturing and controlling, has become a fragmented, variegated and personalized social network. Autonomy, opportunity, and uncertainty are the rule.
Complex social networks have always existed, but recent technological developments have afforded their emergence as a dominant form of social organization. Just as computer networks link machines, social networks link people. … The technological development of computer-communications networks and the societal flourish of social networks are now affording the rise of “networked individualism” in a positive feedback loop.

“Should we let students opt out of face-to-face education?” I didn’t see any F2F learning in my brief intellectual journey. It seemed to be a good example of Wellman’s “networked individualism.” Just in time and self-directed – beginning with my LinkedIn network and extending beyond – each hyperlink both a destination and new point of departure. The results  - this reflective post which might serve as a catalyst for the readers further exploration of the theme. (I’ll complete this “”positive feedback” loop by adding this post to the LinkedIn discussion.

Why would we shackle our students to a face-to-face education?


Image credit flickr/Marc_Smith  Note: The image shows the connections among the Twitter users who follow the user account @jowyang when queried on December 14, 2011, scaled by numbers of followers (with outliers thresholded). Connections created when users follow one another.

Excellent Sheep and Our Crisis of Leadership

A recent rebroadcast of an interview with William Deresiewicz on WBUR’s Here & Now led me to his essay Solitude and Leadership in American Scholar. The essay is from a lecture he delivered to West Point’s plebe class October 2009.

Deresiewicz addresses the roots of our crisis of leadership in America,

… I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school. Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. … So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. …They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.”

… We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

For his full essay and his thoughts on education, Twitter, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness click here.

As I’ve written, I’m outraged by the fact that a generation of teachers and students have become slaves to corporatized testing. While our school district mission statements all claim to “foster life-long learners,” in reality, teachers are forced to spend increasing class time prepping kids for predictable tests. We’re giving a generation of kids practice for predictable, routine procedures – and that happens across the “bell curve” from AP test prep to meeting minimal proficiency on NCLB-mandated tests.

If students are going to be productive in a dynamic society and workplace they will need to be agile, fluid learners. Future leaders that are encouraged to explore their own approaches and reflect on their progress. Students who can work collaboratively with their peers to plan, implement and evaluate projects of their own design. For more of my thoughts on standardized testing, teaching and learning, see my test prep tag.

Image credit: flickr/jahansell

Student Bloggers Reflect on Learning


My approach to instruction borrows from the thinking of Donald Finkel who believed that teaching should focus on “providing experience, provoking reflection.” 

He goes on to write,… to reflectively experience is to make connections within the details of the work of the problem, to see it through the lens of abstraction or theory, to generate one’s own questions about it, to take more active and conscious control over understanding.
~ From Teaching With Your Mouth Shut

Since I first posted my Taxonomy of Reflection in Jan 2010, I’ve been on the lookout for good examples of student (and teacher) reflection to share with my readers.

I was pleased to see that Mike Gwaltney (and good friend and great teacher at Oregon Episcopal School) had developed a well-designed model for incorporating student reflection into a new class blog. The Age of Exploration Blog. I urge you to visit his class blog and respond to the student posts – they are looking for your feedback.

Honesty, deeper reflection, and care in the writing because they know they’ll have “real world” readers and commenters, not just their teacher

I asked Mike for his “elevator pitch” on why he thinks fostering student reflection is so important. He replied, 

Teachers don’t give kids time enough to reflect in a serious way. The success of this assignment comes from giving them: a) instructions on how to reflect, good questions to consider; b) time to do so – real time, not just one day, but frequently; c) an authentic audience to write for – it encourages honesty, deeper reflection, and care in the writing because they know they’ll have “real world” readers and commenters, not just their teacher.

Here’s a portion of Mike’s assignment for his high school sophomores. Full assignment here

The topics of your blog posts in general should be “reflection on your learning”. Reflection is an opportunity for you to step back and think about / evaluate. When you reflect, you’re doing very high-order thinking, the kind we do when we self-assess. As for the topic of your reflection, you choose that. Here are some general ideas I have for topics:

  • “What I’ve been studying / learning lately.” – tell us about some topics you’ve researched this year and what you’ve learned. This could be about the big topics of projects, or about little pieces of a topic you discovered and that you found really interesting.
  • “What I’m working on right now and what I hope it will be.” – tell us about your current project and how it’s shaping up. What are some things your finding and what form will your project take?
  • “What I’m learning about myself as a learner.” – tell us about how it’s going for you being in a research-based class. Are you finding this is a good way for you to learn? What’s easy? What’s hard? What are some successful strategies you’ve followed? How do you think you can improve?
  • Etc. – what other ideas do you have for a blog post? Feel free to take it where you wish.

I’ve been impressed with the depth of reflection generated by his students’ posts. I asked Mike if I could join in the dialogue by posing a few questions for his students to answer. (sort of reflecting on reflection). I asked them to read their reflections and those of their peers and answer two questions:

  1. “Do you see any patterns in the reflections”. I think that analyzing is the gateway to higher order reflection – See my post The Reflective Student for more prompts.

  2.  ”Looking back to your reflections (and those of their peers) can you identify any ‘ah-ha’ insights?”


Here’s some of the student responses:

What I found really interesting about this assignment was that most people wrote about themselves as learners, not the information they have gained from our class.


What I found really interesting about this assignment was that most people wrote about themselves as learners, not the information they have gained from our class…. My peers and I are accustomed to very focused courses that, while emphasizing creativity, don’t always allow students to pursue what really interests them or to learn more about themselves. This blog looked like it was an opportunity for many people to have semi-revelations about their school experiences and their optimal learning environments.

The ah-ha insights were kind of obvious: students in this class learn the best when they can choose what, and how, to learn. I just realized that this blog was another mechanism of learning that helped most everyone learn about themselves. Haley’s full post A Love, Lost and Found


Most of our reflections aren’t just talking about what we learned fact-wise or wrote in class. It seems we’re actually taking a look at what we’ve been doing ourselves, examining how we learn things, what’s been working for us, and what hasn’t been working. The class is about learning information, while this blog is about us learning about our learning of information.

Ah-ha insights: Karen saying, “As a researcher, I’ve found my hardest task not to be collecting information or presenting it, but rather motivating myself to delve deeper and deeper into the topic instead of simply accepting what I have as being good enough.” Arjun saying, “the point of research is to learn something new or interesting, and then share those findings with others” Robby saying, “Instead of being graded on what is right and wrong, a student can be graded on how well they did personally” Spencer’s full post Research Conundrum: Bias


First of all, every one of the posts shows that the author has been enjoying Age of Ex immensely. My post was mostly about learning and researching as a concept rather than actual facts or ideas that were learned in assignments, and most of the other posts focused on essentially the same thing. My classmates and I have written about how the loose structure of the class gives us enough support to feel comfortable, but also encourages us to push beyond what we’re used to and to think for ourselves.

Certainly one of the most common insights was that research based classes are, in fact, pretty difficult because they require one to be self-managed and self-driven. On the other hand, another of the most common realizations was that we were enjoying our research and learning. It seems that we also found that the necessity of being self-driven pushed us to understand who we are as learners and how we learn best. Clare’s full post Researching History to Understand My World


One commonality that I noticed throughout many of the blog posts was the appreciation of the freedom that Age of Ex has given us. For me, and some classmates, this was a crucial component in choosing this class. What appealed to us was the ability to learn about what we, as individual students, were interested in. Another thing that I noticed was people rediscovering the researching process. Learning how to budget time and tackle large projects.

Many of the ah-ha moments I noticed were the realization of an individual research process. Over the course of this first project, people realized which researching techniques worked from them, and which didn’t. I think that these lessons are going to be something that a majority of the class continues to carry with them throughout the year. Lauren’s full post A Research Project in Retrospect

Image credit: flickr/Alex Clark

Learning Walks: The Power of Teacher to Teacher PD

Learn and Lead
Learn and Lead

It’s always a pleasure to work with the school district that “gets it.”
Lebanon Community Schools in Lebanon, Oregon is that sort of place.

“This creates teacher leadership opportunities. It turns visits to the classroom into teacher to teacher professional development – transforming the notion of what happens when people visit your classroom.”

I was first introduced to LCS in May through their work with Oregon’s Class / Chalkboard Project. In August, I gave an opening-day faculty presentation focused on looking at learning from the students’ perspective. Since then I’ve assisted LCS in training a group of six “learning walk leaders” who will lead their peers on reflective learning walks through the classroom. As one of the leaders neatly summarized our goals, “This creates teacher leadership opportunities. It turn visits to the classroom into teacher to teacher professional development – transforming the notion of what happens when people visit your classroom.”

I have worked with many districts leading teachers and administrators on “classroom walkthroughs” (the term I generally use for the process) and conducting sessions designed to train-the-trainer. But Lebanon’s approach topped them all – their initiative with solid administrative support and a teacher-centric focus worth replicating. Ryan Noss, the district assistant superintendent attended all the training sessions, but consistently deferred to “let’s let the teachers decide how they want to do this.” Here’s how it went. (All quotes are from the six participants’ reflective journals.)

The district is supporting six teachers with stipends to lead their peers on reflective classroom walks. This week I completed three days of training with the “Learning Walk Leaders.” We first met as a whole group to discuss the opportunities and challenges of learning walks, but soon got into the classroom to try it out. Over the course of two days, I led pairs of teachers on visits to K-12 classrooms across the district. During that time, they had the chance to both experience the power of reflective discussion and see how to best focus our conversations on the students in the classroom, not the teacher.

We used a similar approach for each classroom visit. After checking with the teacher to see if it’s a good time to enter, we typically spent about 5-8 minutes in each class. While there we did not talk among ourselves or take any notes. (Visitors with clipboards make me nervous.) If appropriate, we might speak briefly with the teacher to get some background to the lesson or chat up a student who wanted to share what they were working on. But we weren’t there to try and “understand” the lesson. You can’t do that in 5 minutes. We wanted to see students in action and use that experience as a catalyst for a discussion. Think of learning walks as moving professional development from the lecture to the lab.

Think of learning walks as moving professional development from the lecture to the lab.

After exiting class we traveled down the hall for a brief discussion. What tasks were the students engaged in? What types of thinking did the students need to use to complete the task? What sort of choices did students need to make to complete the task? Can we find consensus about what level of Bloom’s Taxonomy best describes the student task? As Sarah Haley put it, “I love the idea of honing our reflective skills – what’s learning look like when compared to Bloom’s?” As Chrissy Shanks observed, “Learning walks gave me a fresh perspective on the ways students think.”

Often the time spent in class proved to be a jumping off point to more hypothetical discussions about student learning. “We just saw students making maps – what are the essential elements of a map? How do people use maps? What could students learn by making a real-life map for their peers to use?” Some of our best discussion about our own practice as teachers came from these extensions of what we saw in the classroom. “Teacher learning walks inspired me to become a better teacher! I learned so much about what students are doing in our district and was able to reflect on my teaching practice.” Melissa Johnson

On the third day learning walk leaders took turns “guiding” each other on visits. After each visit,  they came back to central location and one leader “led” the reflective discussion in a “Fishbowl,” while the rest listened, and then offered feedback. Finally, we met to develop a protocol for how to conduct visits in the future. We want to make sure, that learning walks are seen as productive, not interruptions in the classroom. As Erica Cooper wrote “We are students of instruction in a lab setting. A trust has to be built to make it work. I want to be able to guide teachers in observing student learning to help their teaching practice.”

Next week the learning walk leaders will promote the process to their peers and begin leading reflective visits to district classrooms. We decided they needed an “elevator pitch.”

  1. Focus on the students (not the teacher) in a quick visit to the classroom (snapshot of learning)
  2. Discuss the tasks students are doing. Do we agree on what level of Bloom’s we see?
  3. Result – Teacher To Teacher Professional Development. Shall we call it “T3PD?”
  4. Best way administrators can support the effort. Ask, “Have you had interesting discussions today?” Note: don’t ask “have you seen good lessons today?” You can’t judge a lesson in 5 minutes – besides we’re watching the student. 

Image credit: iStockphoto

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