Clare Raku explores how the school can change policy and attitudes to motivate students to achieve in their learning.
The academy has used Vivo as the main school rewards system for a number of years. The purpose of this research is to explore what motivates students at Sir Christopher Hatton Academy to achieve and evaluate the effectiveness of Vivo in improving motivation.
The motivation of students is a “notoriously complex” area to quantify with learner motivation being “difficult to measure” (Harlen and Deakin Crick, 2002; OECD, 2000; Cook et al., 2001 cited in Lord, 2005). However, a range of key “indicators” that reflect learner motivation appear often in both the literature, and government policy focused on what motivates learners to succeed. These indicators include: learner attitudes; learner characteristics; attainment and academic progress data; behavioural and psychological indicators; and, attendance and drop-out data (Lord, 2005).
The literature also suggests that it is similarly tricky to identify the factors which are mostly likely to motivate students to achieve. Two basic definitions of motivation are widely accepted amongst educationalists; each are based on the different reasons which cause an action to take place on the part of the learner. Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable whilst extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome (Deci & Ryan, 1985 cited in Ryan & Deci, 2000). There has been much research into which motivating factors are most successful in increasing learner performance, and a number of recurring ideas appear in the literature which might have a positive impact on learner motivation. These include: extrinsic or external goals and rewards, assessment for learning (AfL), the role of the teacher, the importance of the classroom environment, curriculum design and participation in extra-curricular activities.
External Goals & Rewards
To some extent, external goals and rewards have been identified as having an effect on learner motivation. In Poland, for example, a national monetary rewards scheme was devised to award approximately 5000 students per month who achieved top marks (Lord, 2005). However, a recent study by the EEF found that providing both financial incentives (money) and event incentives (for example, a free prom ticket) to students had no significant positive impact on attainment in Maths, English or Science (EEF, 2016). The research did conclude, interestingly, that financial incentives resulted in a statistically significant improvement in classwork effort across the core subjects; however, there was no evidence that it had any impact on behaviour, attendance or homework effort. The report suggests that further research is needed to understand why incentives “appear to change classwork effort but do not necessarily translate into higher attainment” (EEF, 2016).
Worryingly, there is research to suggest that extrinsic rewards can sometimes reduce intrinsic motivation. Emma Dunmore, head of psychology at Harrogate Grammar School, North Yorkshire, carried out a study of reward schemes and concluded that, “Receiving (a) reward may reduce the individual’s sense that they were doing the task because they chose to…instead, they felt that they were doing it for a reward and so were being controlled by someone else.” (Dunmore 2009, cited in Paton, 2009). What is even more concerning, is that there is evidence which suggests that efforts to increase motivation can actually result in lower attainment. In an analysis of the 2012 PISA findings, Tom Loveless demonstrated that countries that do well on student motivation do poorly on maths attainment and vice versa (Loveless, 2015 cited in Didau, 2015). A well-known 1970 Stanford University experiment supports the idea that external rewards lower the intrinsic desire to do well. At a nursery school, researchers divided 51 toddlers into groups. All the children were asked to draw a picture but one group was told in advance that they would get a special reward as a result of their work. The children did the drawings, and the ones in the treatment group got their certificates; however, a few weeks later, the researchers observed the children on a normal school day. They found that the ones who had received the award spent half as much time drawing for fun as those who had not been rewarded, suggesting that the reward “diminished” the act of drawing (Ripley, 2010).
In the US, a large randomized experiment by Roland Fryer, across hundreds of classrooms in multiple cities, in schools where many of the children were from disadvantaged backgrounds, found that financial incentives had almost no impact. Where students were paid for their grades, there was no impact on their performance. This is thought to be because grades are out of students’ control. However, the study did discover that if incentives are devised wisely, payments can boost students’ performance. Paying students for “small accomplishments” within their control, such as attendance and behavior, seemed to lead to more learning. This research supports the EEF findings that rewarding students for achievable goals leads to an increase in classwork. However, perhaps neither study spanned a length of time necessary to see this increased class work result in higher achievement. The most significant impact of students’ performance, however, was as a result of paying students to read books. It was felt that this was something achievable for the students, as it was within their control. The programme significantly raised their reading comprehension test scores and, statistically, demonstrated that the scheme had the same effect as if they had had three additional months in school. The children who were paid to read books were the youngest of all the children across the different experiments which could suggest that they were more receptive to the idea; however, it is difficult to prove this either way without further research (Fryer, cited in Ripley, 2010).
One of the most successful charter school networks in the US, KIPP, suggest that the most successful external rewards are those that acknowledge aspects of learners’ education that are within their control: attendance, participation in class and so on. KIPP schools suggest that “speed matters” with rewards and that, actually, children need different kinds of incentives to “get through the day” from receiving items of stationery to earning freedoms and privileges such as listening to music at lunchtime (Ripley, 2010). Champions of the impact of intrinsic motivation would probably be aghast at this approach to teenage motivation since it conflicts with the notion that people should be intrinsically motivated to learn for learning’s sake. However, Fryer might argue that embracing intrinsic motivation alone fails to accept that children are children (Fryer, cited in Ripley, 2010) and, like adults going to work for pay, people cannot possibly find motivation for everything they do through attempting to foster a love of the activity itself.
The research appears to show that offering external rewards to students does little, if anything to improve motivation enough to translate into tangible achievements. If this is the case, then lessons from psychological research could prove useful. The idea of ‘loss aversion’ demonstrates that most people would far rather avoid a loss than make a gain (Skinner, cited in Didau, 2016). Perhaps educators should focus on helping students to understand what they might lose, or what is ‘at stake’, rather than trying to increase motivation by the ‘carrot method,’ which may, perversely, have the reverse effect.
AfL & The Role of the Teacher
According to Lord’s review of different worldwide government initiatives used to encourage learner motivation, assessment for learning is highlighted as encouraging learner motivation; for this reason it is important in government policy in both England and Liechtenstein (Lord, 2005). Learner motivation is felt to be intrinsically linked to “holistic pupil evaluation” which includes frequent evaluation, assessment and open discussion of mistake and targets for improvement (Lord, 2005). A teacher’s role in helping students to understand what they can and cannot do is, therefore, vital in ensuring that learners are motivated to continuously improve.
The role of the teacher appears to be crucial in motivating students to succeed. However, according to several studies, teachers have a limited awareness of their potential to influence learner motivation (Givvin et al., 2001; Spiel and Schober, 2002 cited in Lord, 2005). Continuity of teaching, teacher enjoyment, teacher role in establishing level of challenge, and teachers’ awareness of their pupils’ motivation are all crucial (Lord, 2005). An OECD report published in 2000 recommended that teachers needed to be, themselves, motivated for lifelong learning in order to motivate their students for the same (OECD, 2000 cited in Lord, 2005). Indeed, Lord suggests that teachers’ professional development should include increasing awareness amongst teachers of the key role they play in encouraging learners to be motivated and succeed (Lord, 2005). It seems evident that the role of the teacher cannot be underestimated in encouraging learner motivation.
The Classroom Environment
The classroom environment has been identified as a pivotal factor in motivating learners. The “pastoral and peer” environment of the classroom appears to be the most important aspect (Lord, 2005). Classrooms which “feel safe, non-controlling, and that support learners’ autonomy, wellbeing and self-esteem” appear to encourage learner motivation (Lord, 2005). A synthesis and evaluation of evidence by the New Zealand Ministry of Education on a range of issues relating to young people’s engagement and achievement highlighted the “learning community” as very important to learners’ experiences (Lord, 2005). Most would agree that the classroom environment is established and fostered by teachers themselves, rather than emerging by chance. The role of the teacher is, therefore, further highlighted as being of extreme importance to the concept of motivation.
The curriculum is important for the engagement of learners. According to Lord, “much research points to the need for the curriculum to provide relevant and meaningful learning – to engage learners through making connections to real life, to young people’s interests and to the world of work” (Lord, 2005). However, perhaps the most important role of the curriculum is to ensure that it challenges students and encourages them to want to learn more and continuously build their skills.
A 1997 study by McQuillan which reviewed 10 academic studies on incentives programmes for reading found that they had no effect on the habits, achievements or motivation of students. He suggested that the “best way to reward children for reading is to give them more books and time to read them” (McQuillan, 1997, cited in Sauerwein, 1999). Rewards for achievement could be seen as ineffectual. McQuillan’s research appears to suggest that the reward for doing well should be increased challenge and further study; however, this is strongly contradicted by Fryer’s more recent research which suggests that paying children to read improves their outcomes over time.
The design of the curriculum must be broad and balanced in order to ensure continual challenge and rigour whilst maintaining students’ interest through relevance and meaningfulness. The latter cannot be achieved by curriculum design alone: teachers play a huge role in delivering lessons which are engaging, interesting and meaningful in order to motivate students to want to do well.
Participation in Extra-curricular Activities
Student participation in extra-curricular activities and provision appears to have a positive impact on learner motivation and achievement. Lord highlights that the literature points to the wide ranging benefits of extra-curricular and extended school provision which include a positive impact on pupil attainment, attendance, behaviour, engagement and motivation (Lord, 2005). Lord also suggests that extra-curricular provision is particularly important with regards to the learning of gifted and talented students (Lord, 2005).
Recent studies support the notion that extra-curricular activities increase learner motivation and improve students’ performance. A 2016 study into the impact of primary school children from poorer backgrounds taking part in after school clubs, found that at age 11, those who had attended clubs once or twice a week made significantly more progress than predicted when compared to children from similar disadvantaged backgrounds who had not attended clubs (Chanfreau et al., 2016).
The effects are similar for older children too. A study of 508 private schools by the Independent Schools Council suggests that pupils who take part in several extra-curricular activities tend to perform better in exams. Pupils in the best performing schools took part on average in 50% more activities that those in weaker schools. The ISC research suggests that schools offering 30 or more activities were more likely to have nearly 100% of pupils achieving grade B or above at GCSE level. Schools offering 20 activities saw just 30% of pupils achieving these results (ISC, 2009).
Research from other countries also suggests that extra-curricular activity can not only improve students’ motivation and performance, but keep students away from toxic external influences such as alcohol and drugs. The Youth in Iceland programme, based on evidence from US researchers, introduced a wide range of initiatives to improve the lives of young people. These included: strengthening links between parents and schools and increased state funding for organised clubs. Laws were also passed which aimed to regulate and improve the behaviour of young people and their relationship with their parents. As a result of these initiatives, “between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported often or almost always spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled—from 23 percent to 46 percent—and the percentage who participated in organized sports at least four times a week increased from 24 percent to 42 percent. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking and cannabis use in this age group plummeted” (Young, 2017). The project also identified a number of factors as being “strongly protective” for the wellbeing of young people: participation in organised activities – especially sport – three or four times a week, total time spent with parents during the week, feeling cared about at school, and not being outdoors in the late evenings (Young, 2017). Although many of the initiatives introduced by the Icelandic government were supported by laws such as curfews for teenagers, the impact of the project is still staggering and highlights the positive effect of organised, extra-curricular activity, not only on students’ motivation and achievement, but also on their well-being. A more innovative, outward-looking and holistic approach to the link between student motivation and achievement has surely got to be a key consideration for any school or academy in the light of this research.
It is clear from the literature that there is no one answer to motivating students to achieve. Sir Christopher Hatton Academy has used Vivo as the main school rewards system for a number of years in order to motivate its students to strive for more; however, little evaluation of its effectiveness has occurred until now. The purpose of this research is to explore what motivates students at Sir Christopher Hatton Academy to achieve and evaluate the effectiveness of Vivo in improving motivation.
100 students from across the academy were surveyed using closed questions. A further 10 students from different year groups, genders, backgrounds and abilities were interviewed as part of a narrative inquiry.
In the online survey, students were asked to select a maximum of two responses, to respond to the question “Why do you want to do well at school?” The most popular response was “to get a good job” closely followed by “to gain a good set of qualifications.” Over a third of respondents wanted to “make their parents proud” which was the third most popular response.
Students were then questioned about the current academy reward system: Vivo. 7% of respondents said that they “were very motivated by Vivo.” 47% of students said that Vivo motivated them “a little”; however, 45% of respondents stated that Vivos “did not motivate” them “at all.”
The survey then asked students whether or not they would want their parents to be informed if they received an award from school. Overwhelmingly, 70% of students said that they would want their parents to be told if they received an award; only 3% did not want them to be told and the rest said that they “did not care” either way.
Finally, the survey asked students to select, from a long list of options, what top 3 rewards might motivate them to do well at school. The most popular reward was money, with 62% of students opting for this. The next most popular rewards were to be able to jump the queue for the canteen, sweets and chocolate, money put onto canteen card and a phone call home. Only 10% of students suggested that they would appreciate a certificate.
Interestingly, the interviews with students revealed a different story. When asked whether students would be motivated by receiving a reward from school, the answer was ‘yes.’ However, when asked to elaborate on what this reward would look like, ‘phone calls home’ and ‘certificates’ were the most common responses. Students stated that they wanted to be recognised for their achievements at school but that recognition was more important than reward. For several, a ‘well done’ rather than something tangible was enough. Students overwhelmingly agreed that their main motivation for doing well at school was to get a good job, to secure a decent future and to make their family proud. Interestingly though, the role of the teacher emerged as being pivotal in harnessing that motivation to succeed. Overwhelmingly, students expressed the view that having a good relationship with their teacher and feeling like the teacher ‘cared’ about them and their success was extremely important as to whether or not they enjoyed going to those lessons. Equally, students stated that a ‘calm’ and purposeful atmosphere was key to them feeling motivated to do well in lessons. Students were also asked about the role their teachers played in giving them feedback on their work. Every student felt that it was important that teachers gave them clear targets of how to improve their work and do better – for most, these comments were more important than written praise; although, many mentioned that it was nice to receive praise. The evidence garnered from interviews appears to tally with the research from the Literature Review which suggests that financial and event based incentive schemes don’t work because they focus on factors outside of student control.
Most of the students interviewed took part in extra-curricular activities. They struggled to articulate the impact that this had on their studies; although, many were able to identify that their confidence and communication skills had increased as a result of their participation in organised activities. Several students also highlighted the importance of extra-curricular activities in helping them to ‘relax.’ The Literature Review suggests that there is a direct link between participation in extra-curricular activities, motivation and achievement and although more research is needed in this area, schools should probably be doing everything possible to increase the provision of extra-curricular activities in their school day.
It seems evident that although motivation is difficult to quantify, there are several factors which can be identified as having a positive effect on motivating learners.
The evidence does seem to suggest that schools could recognise and possibly reward students for achieving realistic goals which are within their control such as attending school, completing homework and so forth, and this might have a positive impact on learner motivation. The effect that this would have on securing student achievement is still questionable and as yet, an area lacking in research; however, common sense would suggest that over a period of time, students who regularly attend school, complete their homework and focus in class might achieve good GCSE results.
All the evidence suggests that Vivos are not cost effective or having the desired effect on students’ motivation. It is clear that students need to recognised for their achievements; however, that recognition does not need to cost lots of money. Of the utmost importance is ensuring that students’ achievements are formally recognised, and that parents are made aware of those achievements too. These principles will form the basis of SCHA’s rewards scheme next academic year.
Furthermore, the identification of extra-curricular activities as having a positive effect on learner motivation suggests that we should review our extra-curricular provision and ensure that students have access to a wide range of enriching and engaging activities which develop them as ‘whole people.’
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