Home » Recommended Reading and Viewing » Motivating Students to Learn

Motivating Students to Learn

Rewards help children learn but teachers are discouraged from using them.

By Herbert J. Walberg & Joseph L. Bast

To Reward or Not to Reward: Motivating Students to Learn

The late Jere Brophy, a longtime Michigan State University professor of educational psychology, started the second edition of his 428-page tome titled Motivating Students to Learn with the following summaries of two opposing views about how best to motivate students:

Learning is fun and exciting, at least when the curriculum is well matched to students’ interests and abilities and the teacher emphasizes hands-on activities.  When you teach the right things the right way, motivation takes care of itself.  If students aren’t enjoying learning, something is wrong with your curriculum and instruction — you have somehow turned an inherently enjoyable activity into drudgery.

School is inherently boring and frustrating.  We require students to come, then try to teach them stuff that they don’t see a need for and don’t find meaningful.  There is little support for academic achievement in the peer culture, and frequently in the home as well.  A few students may be enthusiastic about learning, but most of them require the grading system and the carrots and sticks that we connect to it to pressure them to do at least enough to get by.

Brophy observed that “neither [view] is valid, but each contains elements of truth.”  They illustrate the two extreme ends of a continuum of views among psychologists of student motivation.  At one extreme is a teaching philosophy based on what Brophy called “overly romantic views of human nature,” while at the other is a philosophy based on “overly cynical or hedonistic views of human nature.”  Between these extremes lies a realistic and research-supported theory of student motivation.

The core message we deliver in Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn and why teachers don’t use them well is that too many teachers adhere to the first view and reject the use of rewards that have been proven to be effective in classrooms in carefully controlled studies covering many years and many thousands of students.