What Motivates Your Students? Nature vs. Nurture

Identifying what motivates your students can help you encourage them throughout their academic journey. Whether it’s the beginning of the year or the last few weeks before summer, learning how to push our students in a positive way will help them continue forward in their educational journey.

Nature’s Role

One only needs to watch a developing infant to know that motivation is an innate trait we all possess. Without any promise of a “You Rock” sticker or Hershey kiss, the newborn is motivated to learn new skills and meet their basic human needs. They cry until fed. They discover amusement in hitting their musical mobile, taking in its sights and sounds. They continue to seek out-of-reach toys until they find the strength to crawl to them. They continue each learned skill ad nauseam. Why? Simply put, the infant has an intrinsic desire to demonstrate competence – to be able to do something he couldn’t do before.

Nurture’s Role

As this infant grows into a school-age child and later a working adult, motivation morphs and grows. Nurture steps in and awakens extrinsic motivation. Scientists and psychologists have been debating nature vs. nurture for years and in my opinion, the verdict is clear. Neither takes home the victory – they are inseparable, especially when looking at what motivates our students. As educators and counselors, knowing that our students are born with the capacity to learn and be motivated toward success leaves us to focus only on the nurture part of the equation.

How do we rouse and foster this vital trait?

How to Nurture Student Motivation

The first step is to change the way we think about teaching. Most of us have spent years accumulating knowledge on the vast subject matter so that we are equipped to stand in front of our students and provide access to this knowledge in the hopes that they will master state and national standards. That’s enough right? WRONG.

This approach only addresses cognitive-based learning, which alone, actually kills motivation, as it neglects an important step in the learning process: buy-in and engagement. This is what psychologists call the self-system of learning. You get the opportunity to discover what motivates your students and inspire that intrinsic motivation to help them answer the question, “Why do I want to learn this?”.

Curiosity’s Role

I believe curiosity is the true first step in learning and motivation. Think back to the curious infant: the motivation to reach a toy across the room came from within, but the parent celebrating his efforts was the external motivator for continued growth.

When people are dishing out idealistic, pie in the sky ideals, I tend to think “well that all sounds great, but how do I translate it to practical application?” So, to save you the same eye-rolling, here are 21 ways to spark curiosity and help you discover what motivates your student. 

The onus is on our students to do the work. However, when you look into what motivates your student, we can ignite their drive to acquire new knowledge, determine how best to relay it, and finally celebrate the success of mastery! 

Brittany Williamson is a Mental Health Counselor at Florida Children’s Institute based in Jacksonville, Florida. She works closely with children and their families taking a Cognitive-Behavioral approach and is passionate about building emotional intelligence and teaching coping skills that will promote resilience throughout her client’s lives. She is also a certified yoga instructor who uses that knowledge to treat anxiety and depression and to model self-care within her practice. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, staying active, traveling, and spending time with her family and beloved yellow Lab, Reagan.

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