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The New ABCs of Teaching: How to Increase High-Quality Student Motivation
By Stephen Tonks, PH.D.
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have been teaching current and future teachers for 15 years at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and a top concern among most current and future teachers is lack of student motivation in the classroom. Throughout the pandemic, online and hybrid schooling has made it even more challenging to motivate students.

There is not one correct way to motivate students, because motivation is complex and results from social and individual factors. Although it is easy for teachers to find advice and tips on the internet for motivating students, sometimes there is too much information, and it can be overwhelming to sift through it all and keep all the ideas in your head. In addition, it can be hard to try new things and employ new strategies when you notice students are disengaged. There has been a push in education to ensure teachers adhere to scientific, research-based educational practices, which makes sifting through internet information that much more daunting. How can a classroom teacher discern opinion from research-based findings? I can help. In this article, I present a simple framework for organizing and remembering how to encourage high-quality motivation in your students.

Motivation theory

The ABCs of teaching refers to the three basic psychological human needs identified by Self-Determination Theory (SDT), one of the most popular and most researched modern theories of motivation, first conceptualized by Professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. According to SDT, the need for Autonomy, the need for Belonging, and the need Competence (or ABC) underlie our emotional health, happiness, and high-quality motivation. Psychological needs are similar to physiological needs: if our need for water is satisfied, then we thrive, but if not, then we suffer physical consequences. Similarly, if our psychological need for autonomy is satisfied, then we feel in control and experience a sense of freedom, but if not, then we feel controlled, constrained, and ultimately less happy.

Importantly, SDT researchers talk about intrinsic motivation as “high-quality,” because it leads to deeper learning, retention of knowledge, curiosity, a love for learning, and positive emotions. The other low-quality kind of motivation is extrinsic motivation, which includes things like rewards, threats, and punishments. Although extrinsic motivation can be powerful, it produces short-lived motivation, surface learning, and the feeling that, “I have to do this.” Our education system relies too heavily on extrinsic motivators, and this reality was laid bare early in the pandemic, as teachers had to pivot quickly to online instruction. As many educators noticed, without grades and other extrinsic motivators, many students simply tuned out of class and stopped doing their assignments — precisely because the education system had been encouraging extrinsic motivation instead of intrinsic motivation. Decades of research, and trials in classrooms, show that doing things to support students’ psychological needs effectively help intrinsically motivate and engage students.

Group of students standing in a hallway
A sense of control

So what? How can you actually facilitate this amongst your students? The need for autonomy means students need to have a sense of control over their own actions and behavior. Giving meaningful choices is a common way to support students’ need for autonomy. They should be meaningful because research has found that choices unrelated to the content (such as choosing your favorite color of pencil to fill out a math worksheet) do very little to increase intrinsic motivation. Something deeper and more meaningful, like letting students have a say in the topic they pursue for a project, helps satisfy their need for autonomy and increases interest, intrinsic motivation, and dedication to the project. Yes, I know, it is not always possible to give such sweeping autonomy, but besides making choices meaningful, try to offer limited, relevant choices. An open-ended project in which students can choose any topic in the world will be overwhelming to many students (and teachers), so giving students some structure is helpful and reassuring. The principal thing to keep in mind when supporting autonomy is to let students guide their own learning to the greatest degree possible, given the classroom context, even if it is just a little.

The need to relate

The need to belong is often called the need for relatedness by SDT researchers. Think of the need to belong as anything that helps students relate to each other or to the teacher. Working with partners or in groups gives students a chance to interact with each other, which can help them build relationships — that is, supporting their need to belong. Of course, teachers need to monitor those groups to make sure they are not hurting students’ need to belong, because someone is not getting along, struggling, or checked out. Something as simple as discussing readings and solving short problems in small groups can enhance students’ need to belong. Even though most school assessment is focused on the individual, remember that most careers involve working in groups and within larger structures or organizations. We even see this in the teaching profession with departments, grade-level teams, PLCs, and the like. So, when you are giving students the opportunity to work together, you are also helping them develop skills they will need to be successful in the 21st century workplace.

Young girl laughing with hands on her head
The need for competence means that someone needs to feel confident and effective in one’s pursuits; we need to feel like we’re good at something in life. This psychological need overlaps with terms teachers might already be familiar with, like self-efficacy and self-concept of ability.
Confidence is important

The need for competence means that someone needs to feel confident and effective in one’s pursuits; we need to feel like we’re good at something in life. This psychological need overlaps with terms teachers might already be familiar with, like self-efficacy and self-concept of ability. There is vast amounts of research showing that when a student’s confidence is low in a task or subject area, his or her effort, persistence and achievement can suffer. In contrast, high confidence leads to the opposite: not giving up and higher success. Supporting students’ need for competence can be as simple as encouraging a student by saying “I know you can solve this problem, because you solved one just like it yesterday,” or “Your comment about the reading yesterday was very insightful, which showed me that you understood the point the author was making.” Daily encouragement such as this can go a long way in satisfying students’ need for competence. On bigger projects, try to help students chunk the work, so that they can meet smaller goals that let them build the full project step by step.

Supporting psychological needs

Teachers can support students’ psychological needs in many ways, including the things you say, the assignments you give, the activities in a classroom, and even the welcoming environment you foster. Teachers can infuse psychological need support into whole units or five-minute activities. Giving students some choice in a semester-long project will help meet their need for autonomy, which should increase their interest in the project overall. Or, telling students that their hard work practicing comprehension strategies, while reading a short text, is making them better readers and helps satisfy their need for competence.

So, to wrap up, try to support students’ needs for the ABCs every day: autonomy, belonging, and competence. Doing things that help to support one or more of students’ three needs will help increase their intrinsic motivation and engagement. When planning an assignment or activity, ask yourself, “Does this meet one or more psychological needs of my students?” If the answer is yes, go ahead with it; if the answer is no, then tweak it, add something, or take something away, until it targets one or more of the needs.

Further Reading

Three Key Elements of Personal Growth
The Motivation Paradox
What Teachers Say and Do to Support Students’ Autonomy During a Learning Activity
How the Need to Belong Influences Human Behavior and Motivation

References

Ryan R. M., & Deci E. L. (2017). Self‐determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Tonks is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University. He researches academic motivation, focusing on reading engagement in children and adolescents. Additional research interests include measuring student motivation and classroom instruction that supports motivation and engagement. Dr. Tonks regularly teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on motivation, educational psychology, and child and adolescent development.

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