We are delighted to interview Dr Erika Patall as part of our TILE Summer Series. Erika, welcome to TILE! Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?

Thanks so much for chatting with me Carolina. To introduce myself, I’m an Associate Professor of Education and Psychology at University of Southern California. I conduct research exploring human motivation, particularly students’ motivation in the classroom and the impact of teachers’ motivation practices on student motivation.

From your research, what are factors that foster student motivation?

The list of factors that can influence students’ motivation in the classroom and out is long. But, the research I do suggests that students will experience the most adaptive and enduring motivation, that is, motivation that comes from within the person, when they experience a sense that they are autonomous and in charge of their own behaviour, when they experience a sense of competence in what they are working on, and when they feel connected to other people around them. For teachers, that means if you want to have students that are engaged in the classroom, it is really important to think about ways to allow students to guide their own behaviour and have a say in the classroom, to find ways to help students feel like they are consistently making progress, and to build sincere, caring relationships. In particular, in a lot of the research I have conducted, I focus on teachers’ practices in terms of the extent to which they afford students a sense of being autonomous. What my research suggests is that when teachers adopt a motivational orientation in the classroom that leads them to try to nurture students’ inner motivation and build on their students’ existing interests and preferences, students ultimately experience a greater sense of autonomy, feel greater interest and enjoyment, and are more attentive in the classroom.

What are concrete ways for teachers to increase student motivation in their classrooms?

There are a lot of strategies that teachers can use to support their students’ motivation in the classroom. However, it’s important that teachers not only go through the motions of using those strategies, but first really internalize the basic idea that students will thrive academically and psychologically when their interests, preferences, and opinions are honored in the classroom.

With that basic belief in place, a good deal of my research suggests that giving students meaningful choices about activities, assignments, or ways of working is a really concrete strategy that can help students feel autonomous in the classroom and more interested and engaged in the work. I’ve even found that just a simple choice of options for all homework assignments for a couple weeks can improve students unit test scores at the end of a unit. Giving choices is often a strategy that seems familiar to teachers, but many teachers don’t use it because it can sometimes create work for teachers that are already pressed for time. I definitely understand that perspective, but would still encourage teachers to invest the time in finding ways to provide students with opportunities to be part of the decision-making process in the classroom when it comes to what to learn about, how to learn it, and how to demonstrate what has been learned.

Beyond giving choices, which is not always the strategy that fits the situation best, research suggests that teachers will see improvements in their students’ motivation when they make a conscientious effort to attend to students perspectives, incorporate their interests and preferences in lessons and assignments, and even be open to hearing students’ negative feelings about the educational content or activities. There are many times during instruction when students can’t see a purpose of what they are learning or the assignment they have been asked to do. Teachers should make a habit of providing their rationales for why they are leading the class to learn about a given topic or engage in a particular activity. If the reasons teachers give tap into students’ existing goals and values, they will be persuasive. If those reasons emphasize rules, requirements, rewards, testing, and evaluation, they are not likely to persuade students that the learning activities are important, and may even backfire, making students feel like there is no good reason for doing the activity and teachers are just trying to pressure and control them to act in a certain way. Sometimes it can be useful to ask the students themselves to generate ideas for why new topics or activities may be important and have a discussion about it.

Beyond helping students feel like what they are doing in the class is what they want to be doing, providing structure so that students feel like they can consistently make progress is really important. Making sure expectations and goals are clear, maintaining a culture that is tolerant of failure and expects that it will occur, providing guidance when students struggle, providing tasks that are well-aligned with students’ existing skills, and providing (often critical) feedback that communicates high expectations, confidence in the students’ ability, and provides a lot of information about how to improve are all really important.

Finally, everyone has a basic need to feel a sense of belongingness and connection with other people. Teachers who make a sincere effort to connect with their students at a personal level are likely to find that the other strategies have even better effects.

Are there teaching strategies that look like they should work to increase motivation, but in fact are detrimental to student motivation?

Thanks for that question. Yes, I would say that there are some strategies that many teachers think are beneficial when in reality they can be detrimental.

When I talk to some teachers, they express the feeling that in order to be a good teacher, they need to maintain a really high degree of control in the classroom. I think I understand what they are feeling. They are at the front of the room, faced with 30 6th graders (or whatever grade), and they feel like they can’t do anything until there is order in the classroom. They are partly right, it is important to establish clear procedures, rules, and routines for how the classroom should function, especially at the beginning of the school year. But, the problem is sometimes they go too far and cross over from providing structure to being controlling, demanding, or domineering. Inherent in their role is that the teacher is the expert and the one in the position of power and authority. Teachers often do know best. But, there are limited benefits and often costs for students motivation and learning when teachers insist that students think, feel, and behave in teacher prescribed ways with little consideration for what students think.

Thanks so much for the interview and good luck with your research!