Using Psychology Principles to Motivate Your Students

Teaching students

Savvy teachers today make use of psychology to increase learning in the classroom. The American Psychological Association and the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education recently undertook a study to identify psychological principles that would be most beneficial in the PK-12 classroom. Both organizations have looked at how to put psychological science to work in education for more than a decade.

Here are the top four principles they found related to student motivation in the classroom: 

  1. Students do better when they are intrinsically, rather than extrinsically, motivated: To encourage students’ learning for the sake of learning, rather than for a grade, praise or other rewards, teachers need to incorporate the students’ need to feel competent and autonomous. This could mean providing informational, rather than punishing, feedback when grading.  Provide students several options to fulfill an assignment and create situations requiring creative problem-solving.
  2. Students persist and master tasks when they adopt mastery vs. performance goals:  Students who have mastery goals strive to develop competencies by learning as much as they can. Students with performance goals may strive to display their competence by trying to outperform others. Performance goals can lead students to avoid challenges at which they won’t excel. Some ways teachers can promote mastery goals are to focus on individual effort. Compare a student to their past performance, not another student. When praising students, be specific. Don’t just say that was perfect or brilliant. When giving feedback, make sure to do it privately. 
  3. Teacher’s expectations affect outcomes:  If a teacher believes a student will do well, they often do. If a teacher believes the opposite, students often don’t perform well. It’s a classic self-fulfilling prophecy at work. Teachers should always hold, and communicate high expectations and refrain from making judgments about how a student will do based on past academic history, race, class or gender.
  4. Specific, moderately challenging short-term goals enhance motivation: Goal setting is important, but it’s also imperative to pick the right type of goals. Research shows these types of goals work best for students:
    • Short-term goals make it easy to assess progress. Prior to reaching middle adolescence, children developmentally are less skilled at thinking concretely about the distant future.
    • Specific goals work because they are easy to monitor and quantify. 
    • Moderately hard goals work best because they are challenging, yet attainable. 

Teachers can help by keeping good written records of goal progress that are routinely reviewed by the student and the teacher. To motive students to work on longer-term goals, teachers can help them create sub-goals leading to a larger goal.