Spotlight On: Science of Motivation

25 August 2023

As a school, we have a clear trajectory for students to develop the academic confidence needed to eventually fly free; because learning doesn’t stop after Queenwood.

At Queenwood, nearly 10% of our staff are currently studying towards postgraduate qualifications. For several of our teachers, formal study has not been undertaken since their original undergraduate degrees.

Those of us studying meet for regular lunches where we lament the struggles of obtuse critical readings, the return to student-centred instruction where all onus is on the learner, and the seemingly relentless deadlines of university study. All this alongside HSC and IBDP marking, supervision duties and a full-time teaching load. However, the mood is buoyant, the conversation constructive, often impassioned, but notably light. We, as teaching scholars, possess the secret of motivation: we have chosen to study.

Subject choices aside, this is often not the case for students at Queenwood; activating the motivation of adult learners remains a holy grail for most teachers. The field is complex, with multiple factors feeding into the school experience, starting at home and with the right conditions, manifesting in the classroom and independent study. We often hear about intrinsic motivation as the ideal – when students engage in learning for its own sake. When this happens, it is a joy to behold. At Queenwood, we promote truth seeking and liberal education for their own sakes. It’s a long game, and well worth pursuing, but it may not yield fruit until the older – or even adult – years.

Motivation comes from many sources. Extrinsic motivation is often seen as the less noble of the two broad types, however all forms of motivation serve a purpose. Some sources involve feelings of shame or guilt, or fear of judgement. A familiar example might be guilt about avoiding the gym. Of course, there is a point where too much of this kind of motivation might be counterproductive, but often these feelings get the job done. These extrinsic sources have the power to set the wheels in motion and spur strong study habits, even if only grudgingly.

What we have seen in the early student data from our Smart Study research project with UNSW, is that Queenwood girls have high levels of identified motivation. This is where students may not feel intrinsically motivated, but they know study is good for them and aligned with the achievement of their long-term goals. The promising aspect of this data is that we now know that students see the connection between their behaviour and their goals. What it also suggests is that aspirational home and school environments are supportive of their ‘struggles to the stars.’

Deci and Ryan are the forefathers of self-determination theory (SDT), and their breakdown of innate human needs shows just how complex motivation really is. When I was an early-career teacher, I thought that high expectations, a bit of personality and a fair amount of nagging was enough to spur students to self-regulated greatness. But since I have learned more about the science of motivation, I’ve realised two slightly contradictory things: first, we can’t directly influence motivation at all; but second, the conditions for motivation and self-regulation are already wrapped up in many of the great practices that we see in classrooms at Queenwood every day.

Deci and Ryan list autonomy, competence, and relatedness as the three key ingredients in self-determination, a construct that is closely related to motivation. As a mid-sized school, we have the time and means to get to know every child, both academically and pastorally, creating strong conditions for the relatedness that is such a big part of self-determination. In the classroom, teaching students content and skills in small steps, using examples and making time for mastery, leads to feelings of competence and later autonomy. There is a lot to be said for explicit teaching, which is so foundational to later critical thinking and independence.

One of the surprising results in the Smart Study data has been the correlation between the explicit nature of the program and students’ feelings of autonomy. Initially, this felt counter-intuitive – surely students would feel restricted by lecture-style sessions? Not so. It seems that offering students options in their learning, without first developing competence, is a false choice. Students have reported significant improvement in their approach to planning, and slightly reduced frustration. Much as marathoners don’t train by running marathons, educational psychologist Zimmerman’s research suggests that people don’t become independent by simply being independent.

If I were to try to sum up how Queenwood teachers motivate students, I would need to lean on cliché to say that it really does take a village. Seemingly, everything affects motivation, from the ways teachers scaffold and support, to the relationship with the tutor. As a school, we have a clear trajectory for students to develop the academic confidence needed to eventually fly free; because learning doesn’t stop after Queenwood.