Motivating Students to Learn - Behavior as a Source of Motivation
Differences in motivation are an important source of diversity in classrooms, comparable in importance to differences in prior knowledge, ability, or developmental readiness.
When it comes to school learning, furthermore, students’ motivations take on special importance because students’ mere presence in class is (of course) no guarantee that students really want to learn. It is only a sign that students live in a society requiring young people to attend school.
Since modern education is compulsory, teachers cannot take students’ motivation for granted, and they have a responsibility to insure students’ motivation to learn.
Somehow or other, teachers must persuade students to want to do what students have to do anyway. Fortunately, there are ways of accomplishing this task that respect students’ choices, desires, and attitudes.
Sometimes it is useful to think of motivation not as something “inside” a student driving the student’s behavior, but as equivalent to the student’s outward behaviors. This is the perspective of behaviorism, which is sometimes used as a way to think about the learning process.
In its most thorough-going form, behaviorism focuses almost completely on what can be directly seen or heard about a person’s behavior, and has relatively few comments about what may lie behind (or “underneath” or “inside”) the behavior.
When it comes to motivation, this perspective means minimizing or even ignoring the distinction between the inner drive or energy of students, and the outward behaviors that express the drive or energy. The two are considered the same, or nearly so.
Equating the inner and the outward might seem to violate common sense. How can a student do something without some sort of feeling or thought to make the action happen?
This very question has led to alternative models of motivation that are based on cognitive rather than behaviorist theories of learning. However, considering the advantages of a behaviorist perspective on motivation is encouraged all the same.
Sometimes the circumstances of teaching can limit teachers’ opportunities to distinguish between inner motivation and outward behavior. Certainly teachers see plenty of student behaviors - signs of motivation of some sort.
But the multiple demands of teaching can limit the time needed to determine what the behaviors mean. If a student asks a lot of questions during discussions, for example, is he or she curious about the material itself, or just wanting to look intelligent in front of classmates and the teacher?
In a class with many students and a busy agenda, there may not be a lot of time for a teacher to decide between these possibilities. In other cases, the problem may not be limited time as much as communication difficulties with a student.
Consider a student who is still learning English, or who belongs to a cultural community that uses patterns of conversation that are unfamiliar to the teacher, or who has a disability that limits the student’s general language skill.
In these cases discerning the student’s inner motivations may take more time and effort. It is important to invest the extra time and effort for such students, but while a teacher is doing so, it is also important for her to guide and influence the students’ behavior in constructive directions.
That is where behaviorist approaches to motivation can help.
Operant Conditioning as a Way of Motivating
The most common version of the behavioral perspective on motivation is the theory of operant conditioning associated with B. F. Skinner (1938, 1957). The description sometimes focuses on behavioral learning, but the same operant model can be transformed into an account of motivation.
In the operant model a behavior being learned (the “operant”) increases in frequency or likelihood because performing it makes a reinforcement available.
To understand this model in terms of motivation, think of the likelihood of response as the motivation and the reinforcement as the motivator.
Imagine, for example, that a student learns by operant conditioning to answer questions during class discussions: each time the student answers a question (the operant), the teacher praises (reinforces) this behavior.
In addition to thinking of this situation as behavioral learning, however, you can also think of it in terms of motivation: the likelihood of the student answering questions (the motivation) is increasing because of the teacher’s praise (the motivator).
Many concepts from operant conditioning, in fact, can be understood in motivational terms. Another one, for example, is the concept of extinction, which is defined as the tendency for learned behaviors to become less likely when reinforcement no longer occurs - a sort of “unlearning”, or at least a decrease in performance of previously learned.
The decrease in performance frequency can be thought of as a loss of motivation, and removal of the reinforcement can be thought of as removal of the motivator. An example of this occurring in the classroom would be a teacher ceasing to comment on students’ homework.
Operant conditioning can be reframed in terms of motivation, as will be seen on the following slides.
In terms of learning the concept of an operant is phrased as behavior that becomes more likely because of reinforcement. In terms of motivation, however, it can be phrased as behavior that suggests an increase in motivation.
In the classroom an example of this would be a student listening to the teacher’s comments during lecture or discussion.
In terms of learning, reinforcement is phrased as a stimulus that increases the likelihood of a behavior. In terms of motivation, this can also be phrased as a stimulus that motivates.
An example of this in the classroom is when a teacher praises a student for listening.
This can be phrased in terms of learning as a stimulus that increases likelihood of a behavior by being introduced or added to a situation. In terms of motivation, however, it is a stimulus that motivates by its presence, an “incentive”.
For example, when a teacher makes encouraging remarks about student’s homework.
This is a stimulus that increases the likelihood of a behavior by being removed or taken away from a situation, when phrased in terms of learning. In terms of motivation it is a stimulus that motivates by its absence or avoidance.
An example of this being achieved in the classroom is when a teacher stops nagging a student about late homework.
Punishment can be described in terms of learning as a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behavior by being introduced or added to a situation. In terms of motivation it is phrased as a stimulus that motivates by its absence or its avoidance.
An example of punishment in the class room may be when a teacher deducts points for late homework.
Shaping Successive Approximations
In terms of learning, shaping successive approximations can be phrased as reinforcements for behaviors that gradually resemble a final goal behavior. In terms of motivation, they can be phrased as stimuli that gradually shift motivation toward a final goal motivation.
An example of this would be when a teacher praises a student for returning their homework a bit closer to the deadline, gradually she praises for being on time.
This is reinforcement that occurs each time that an operant behavior occurs, when phrased in terms of learning. In terms of motivation continuous reinforcement is a motivator that occurs each time that a behavioral sign of motivation occurs.
For example a teacher praises a highly active student for every time he works for five minutes without interruption.
In terms of learning, this is phrased as reinforcement that sometimes occurs following an operant behavior, but not on every occasion. In motivation terms, it is a motivator that occurs sometimes when a behavioral sign of motivation occurs, but not on every occasion.
In the classroom an example of this would be when the teacher praises the highly active student sometimes when he works without interruption, but not every time.