Why students learn

For those of you who know IAAK well, you know that we are very interested in motivating students.  We feel strongly that when students are engaged, they learn.  Hence, we ensure that all of our curricula integrates principled design components, intentional interactivity to appeal to today’s diverse learners.  We also integrate performance-based rewards and recognition into our programs as we have learned (through experience and review of research) that students become more competent when they feel more competent. 

Education Week’s Inside Research blog shares some interesting study findings on motivation.  In the latest issue of the London-based Institute of Education journal Research Matters the article “Learning, Performance and Improvement” highlights that why students learn, as well as why teachers want students to learn, makes a significant difference in achievement. 

Chris Watkins, Institute reader in education at the University of London, conducted a review of over 100 studies (U.S. and abroad) and found that, “The research suggests two parallel motivations drive student achievement: “learning orientation,” the drive to improve your knowledge and competency; and “performance orientation,” the drive to prove that competency to others.”  Those students who had both types of motivation were high-achieving.  While those who focused too much on “performance orientation” thought less critically and performed less well academically.

Ok, nothing too eye-opening yet, right?  As educators, we know that when students want to learn simply for the sake of learning, the learning is richer and achievement greater.  What is interesting about these findings though is that teachers’ motivation for student learning makes a difference.  “Students of all grade spans proved highly attuned to their teacher’s motivation in the classroom, even if she or he did not explicitly state a desire to improve test scores. One included study showed 10-year-olds mirrored their teacher’s performance orientation even in unrelated tasks outside the classroom—and performed poorer on those tasks as a result.”  This makes teaching even more complex given the U.S.’s emphasis on state/national assessments as a primary measure of accountability.   

Another interesting finding:  One strategy that teachers often use to foster this notion of “learning for the sake of learning” in students is to build in metacognitive exercises (like journaling).  However, Watkins points out that simply layering in these practices isn’t enough.  He states, “… students in classrooms have to see themselves as learners before the focus on meta-cognition really takes off.”

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