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Motivating pupils: finding the right balance

Kim Stroet is examining how the interaction between teachers and pupils influences pupils’ motivation. ‘Children need to have the feeling that they are in control of their own learning process.’

Research in the social sciences shows that it is not only a motivating factor when a person finds something enjoyable; it also shows that at school it is of primary importance for an individual to see the utility of a given activity. Psychologist and sociologist Kim Stroet is examining how the interaction between teachers and pupils—from elementary school through university—can contribute to this motivation. ‘Research shows that pupils’ motivation is influenced by their relationship with the teacher, how competent a pupil feels, and the degree of independence pupils are given,’ Stroet explains. ‘But that doesn’t provide teachers with many concrete hooks they can use. I use my analyses to try to figure out how motivation can be stimulated in the context of the classroom.’

The camera in the classroom

She does this using footage she takes at school. One camera films the entire class, while a second camera is aimed at the teacher. She then analyses the footage using quantitative and qualitative research techniques. In this way she quantifies the various types of behaviour using observation frameworks. By watching videos and paying close attention to pupils’ reactions after teachers’ interventions, she can describe various situations in the classroom. She often rewatches the videos with the teachers themselves, as well.

Getting noticed

One thing that clearly emerges from the study is that a school’s vision is decisive for interaction. ‘In many institutions of secondary education, the teacher conducts a class in the classroom and also monitors in every period whether everyone is making progress. So the teacher has very little time left to do things like to provide customized explanation in one-on-one interactions with children, whereas this type of interaction can be very important for  a pupil’s motivation. A child needs to feel that he is noticed in order to be motivated. Otherwise, there is a big chance that he or she will get bogged down in the learning process.’

Pupils’ motivation is influenced by their relationship with the teacher, how competent they feel, and the degree of independence they are given.

Complaints about a poetry assignment

Certain forms of interaction seem to be particularly effective, such as providing space for negative feelings. ‘For example, I filmed a situation in which pupils needed to complete an assignment involving poetry. Not all of the pupils felt like doing it. What the teacher did was to ask the pupils what they thought about the assignment. She gave pupils the opportunity to voice their complaints if they wished to do so. After being allowed to do that, the pupils still started working on the assignment. This dovetails with the conclusions made in other types of research where it is shown that pupils who are given the opportunity to complain have the feeling that they are in control of their learning process. And that has a motivating effect.’

Ownership

What doesn’t work, it turns out, is when reluctant pupils are simply told why an assignment or a subject is important without being given a chance to express their complaints. Stroet explains: ‘This partially has to do with the oft-held idea that if children aren’t motivated to do their schoolwork, they won’t consider it important. That is a misconception. Children are actually more likely to stop doing their work as soon as something goes wrong, such as if too much pressure is exerted by an external factor, such as parents or teachers, to do the work. Ownership, where it is the person himself who wants to learn and is able to learn, is an important component of motivation.’

But on the other hand, giving a pupil total freedom doesn’t work well either. ‘It’s a matter of finding a balance between giving sufficient guidance, but not too much guidance,’ says Stroet. ‘That’s tricky, and every teacher or parent needs to explore what works best. With my research, I hope to make the two extremes of too much guidance or too little, and the effect they have, clearer.’

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