On a recent morning, I had the chance to read poems my ninth-grade English students had written about encounters with racism. I was struck by the beauty and poignance of many of their lines. Yet I knew, and they knew, that I was also reading to issue them a grade.

Alongside the encouraging comments I left to appreciate their good work and acknowledge their insights, I worry that the grade sent the loudest message about the meaning of our exchange. The fact that this was a graded homework assignment—even in the modest category of student commitment—meant that more was at stake than the value of their words. On some level, I was affirming to each student that the reason to write the poem was to get the grade.

Most educators readily acknowledge that grades are not the most important upshot of learning. But for various reasons, many parents and teachers of adolescents in particular find themselves harping on grades as the rationale for doing nearly everything in school. Too often, we fail to see this message from students’ perspective: the constant pressure it sends to complete assignments and learn things just to forget them later; the obsessive worry it creates about where letter grades stand and what might send them careening downward.

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In this environment, along with other factors affecting their well-being, it’s no surprise that many adolescents feel anxious, depressed, demotivated, and frustrated at school. So it’s worth asking what might shift if we took a different approach to learning, one rooted in empowering students to develop their own interests and values.

The problem with focusing on grades

In my and many educators’ experience, pressure to get good grades and perform up to expectations is deeply embedded from sixth grade on. Because grades and competitive pressure are endemic parts of most students’ educations, young people are poised to think mainly in “extrinsic” terms. As they grow up, it becomes harder and harder for many to separate a task from its utility in terms of a reward or punishment. And this drastically limits the kind of growth and learning that they experience.

Indeed, a wealth of research now suggests that what psychologists call external regulation—feeling pressure from outside the self, often from an abstract or real authority figure, to act in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment—dampens our quality of performance, constricts our awareness, and decreases our well-being. Decades of research also suggest that making tasks dependent on rewards like grades undermines the high-quality engagement we seek in school.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a broad framework that has grown out of the research of psychologists Ed Deci and Richard Ryan over four decades. With evidence across a variety of cultures and contexts, SDT posits three basic human needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. From this perspective, what students need most at school is space to feel autonomous, like they’re capable of succeeding at tasks, and like they’re emotionally safe and connected to teachers and peers. When these needs are met, it’s easier for them to access intrinsic or internal motivation and to engage in extrinsic goals with more alignment and personal investment.

What would it look like and feel like for more adolescents to consciously, presently value what we ask them to do in school rather than feeling pressure to complete tasks for external, abstract, often far-off reasons? For one thing, they might feel more connected to their own authentic interests, curiosity, care, and abiding values. The learning that follows from this is therefore more likely to stick. It’s also more likely to lead young people to discover what they want to commit to personally, academically, and ethically. So if we value their character development, we adults should nurture their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

How to boost students’ intrinsic motivation

In Supporting Students’ Motivation: Strategies for Success, SDT psychologist Johnmarshall Reeve and his coauthors offer the following guidelines for nurturing students’ basic needs at school:

  • Take the students’ perspective: Find opportunities to explicitly tell them we see and value their concerns, especially when it seems like they’re complaining.
  • Invite students to pursue their personal interests: Create projects and assignments that offer chances to explore what they’re naturally curious about and interested in.
  • Present learning activities in need-satisfying ways: Integrate group work, pair shares, and other everyday ways for students to feel relatedness with peers. Give encouraging feedback at formative stages of projects and assignments to support their competence, while allowing as much space as possible for them to make choices and feel autonomous.
  • Provide explanatory rationales: Remember that it’s developmentally appropriate and often healthy for adolescents to question adult authority; we build our credibility as educators by explaining our reasoning and expectations to students logically and respectfully.
  • Acknowledge and accept negative feelings: It’s OK for students to feel upset, overwhelmed, and frustrated at times. We can provide a safe container for their feelings and encourage them to draw on their own resilience by meeting negative feelings with compassion.
  • Rely on invitational language: As often as possible, ask students to participate and engage in activities without coercion. Let them experience choice and volition and act from that source of motivation.
  • Display patience: Perhaps hardest of all, we need to model for students our own capacity to feel challenged and persevere through difficult moments. Doing our own inner work to cultivate patience and self-compassion supports everything else we do as educators.

With these in mind, I’ve been experimenting with new ways to motivate students in my classroom, and I’ve found that this can start very simply. For instance, after opening class with individual journaling, I often invite my ninth graders to share out. Each day, various students raise their hands to offer their reflections to the group. Though many of these same students are very focused on grades at other times, they know there is no reward for this participation. Their motivation appears to come from an inner source, and perhaps for this reason it also encourages other students to share.

In this way, we co-create a shared culture of trust and mutual support where what is at stake is the chance to be heard, and maybe well-received, by a teacher and peers. All of our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness—mine and theirs—are nurtured in this context, and that seems to support what we do next.

I can hear some of my fellow teachers wondering, “OK, but what about the more challenging tasks we ask students to do? How do we motivate them to work harder than they will on their own?” These are valid questions, and I think we can answer them without resorting to traditional rewards and punishments.

Part of what matters is how relatively autonomous students feel while engaged in an activity. When something is interesting and enjoyable on its own, like writing, drawing, dancing, or solving a math problem, not much else is needed. The drive toward competence and mastery fuels a willingness to take on challenges for their own sake. So the more we allow students to direct their own learning in this state of engagement, aka intrinsic motivation, the more we can step out of the way and serve as adult resources rather than exhausted task masters. 

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That might look like students self-organizing an activity or approach to completing an assignment that then serves as a model for others. Similarly, when we offer leadership roles to students so that they learn to effectively run important parts of the classroom, that empowers them to take responsibility and maintain accountability.

What about students who don’t feel intrinsically motivated to complete tasks we want them to?

We can still meet them where they’re at by following the guidelines above and de-emphasizing coercive language and practices. Rather than focusing on grades, for example, we can try offering positive feedback and encouragement, opportunities for self-evaluation, and other non-punitive forms of accountability to support students’ basic needs while offering clear guidance and direction.

Maybe the young person who appears resistant or unmotivated is just on the brink of a life-changing discovery. When we see students as worthy, competent, and capable, we build trust with them while helping them foster trust in themselves. Both kinds of trust support healthy self-confidence, rooted in emotional safety, which then fuels their ability to take risks and grow in the future.

The power of project-based learning

None of this is easy, of course. One helpful way to make the shift is through project-based learning (PBL), where assignments address real-world problems and ask students to make creative choices on their own. By working in groups toward a culminating project, students also practice navigating communication challenges and offering constructive criticism to one another, which shifts the power dynamic away from adult supervision and control. If they have the chance to present their work to authentic experts in the field, this adds an extra social incentive, which might lead to discovering new values and long-term interests.

One of the earliest examples I saw of this involved a series of presentations in answer to the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” Students offered their research and considered opinions to a group of professors and engineers, who then offered their own encouraging, sometimes edifying responses. As an observer, it was apparent that the level of engagement was extremely high, and many students wanted to learn and debate further after their projects were complete. 

Teachers often use PBL to create competitions to motivate students to do their best work, and the prospect of winning a contest is certainly one way to appeal to adolescents. Yet this strategy can also reinforce their dependence on rewards, making it seem that winning a prize is the only goal. Many students I’ve talked to over the years assume this is how adults operate, that we work only to get a paycheck. In truth, those of us who are lucky enough to feel personally invested in our jobs seem motivated by more than this.

Rewards, whether in the form of paychecks or grades, can feel great when we experience them as appreciation for good work we’re motivated to do on our own. Yet young people haven’t seen us model this often enough. They need to see us connected to our interests, values, and deep sources of care; they need to hear us asking them what they truly value and giving them space to explore that. This is how we inspire them to aim higher than A’s.

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