Engaging students in the classroom can be challenging, especially in middle school and high school. In fact, according to a 2017 Gallup survey, while 74% of students feel engaged in fifth grade, that number drops to 34% when students reach their senior year of high school.
One reason for this “school engagement cliff” is that by the time students reach middle school, they begin to lose an intrinsic motivation to learn, writes Tara García Mathewson for Hechinger Report.
Schools may unintentionally extinguish students’ excitement for learning by motivating them with external rewards, rather than tapping into their intrinsic motivation, writes García Mathewson. In other words, students complete assignments not because they are genuinely interested in the material, but because they need a certain grade to maintain their position at the top of the class or to play on a sports team. When students lose interest in these external rewards, they also lose their motivation to learn.
How students are motivated to learn matters, argues García Mathewson. She points to research that found that students who have an intrinsic motivation to learn tackle more challenging tasks and develop a deeper understanding of the concepts they study.
To re-motivate and re-engage students, schools need to inspire students’ intrinsic motivation to learn, writes García Mathewson.
But that’s easier said than done, notes Deborah Stipek, a Professor of Education at Stanford University and author of Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice. “I think most realistic people in the field say that you’ve got to have both [intrinsic and extrinsic motivation],” says Stipek. “You can rely entirely on intrinsic motivation if you don’t care what children learn, but if you’ve got a curriculum and a set of standards, then you can’t just go with what they’re interested in.”
One school working to strike that balance is the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Rhode Island. Rather than enrolling in traditional high school classes, students at The Met learn independently through self-directed studies and projects, internships, and dual enrollment with local colleges. And rather than receive traditional grades, students are assessed on their mastery of the goals they set for each subject.
Students at The Met receive ample support from advisors, especially as they first begin to forge their own learning paths. “Ninth graders who have spent their whole life being told what to learn, some of them don’t even know what they’re interested in because they haven’t been given the opportunity,” says Beccy Siddons, a Student Advisor at The Met.
But students eventually come to feel like they’re in control of their learning, notes García Mathewson. For instance, Sarah McCaffrey, a 10th grader, explains the difference between her experience at The Met and her former middle school, “where it was just ‘Do this, this, this,'” she says. “I like more hands-on, where I’m in control, rather than you’re just going to tell me how to do it and then I do it. It’s more like I’m in charge.”
Marissa Souza, a 2017 graduate of The Met, adds, “You’re more proud of your work because you know this was your goal. You met your goal, you didn’t meet a goal that a teacher or principal made for you.”
In fact, on state surveys, students at The Met report being more interested in their coursework, more convinced that their coursework will matter to their futures, and more supported in their learning than their peers at other public schools in the state, writes García Mathewson.
But schools that prioritize intrinsic motivation can struggle to create engaging and academically rigorous lessons and ensure students will perform well on state standardized tests, reports García Mathewson.
Still, Stipek suggests that intrinsic motivation and substantive learning can coexist with the proper teacher preparation and school design. “It’s not that it can’t be done,” she notes. “It’s just really, really hard.”
Nancy Diaz Bain, Co-Director of The Met, says she and her colleagues track student success by looking at state survey data related to student engagement, student behavior, graduation rates, and student success in college courses. She points out that when students from the Met take and pass college courses in high school, they prove they can handle advanced coursework—and save money on an eventual degree (García Mathewson, Hechinger Report, 3/27).