Student Motivation

By Ashley Lammers

Although there are general milestones and characteristics of development, all children progress differently and at their own rate in all aspects of development — social, academic, and emotional.  When considering the notion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in children, both forms can produce a child who is productively and effectively learning new information; however, intrinsic motivation produces a more genuine interest in learning and willingness to try new things and take on more challenging problems just for the sake of learning, or “figuring it out.”  We know when our students are intrinsically motivated they are more inclined to put forth greater effort, and willing to take a risk to learn something, because they are not necessarily concerned with the outcome, as compared to one that is extrinsically motivated. Harlen (2001) takes the approach of the “5 Cs” of intrinsic motivation in children regarding science education. Making the argument that intrinsic motivation is vital to science education, he states the need to understand how the world works requires more than just surface level knowledge. Students have to really wonder and question to be able to achieve that level of understanding. The “5 C’s” Harlen describes are: (1) challenge, (2) choice, (3) constructive feedback, (4) cooperative learning, and (5) confidence building(2001, pp. 16-17).

Inquiry-based science education involves a higher level of thinking and therefore naturally results in challenge(the first “C”) and higher expectations of students. Research tells us that students are capable and actually achieve at higher rates when challenged appropriately. Through inquiry, students first learn to develop productive questions; and teachers need to model asking these deeper level, open-ended questions (Harlen, 2001). In an inquiry based approach, students can reach this higher level thinking through stating a claim to answer a question, using evidence to support it, and using reasoning to connect the evidence to a scientific concept (Zembal-Saul, 2013). I plan on using this C-E-R strategy in my classroom, it is a simple “formula” to stretch students’ thinking and help them discover reasoning behind their thoughts. As a matter of fact, in my classroom I envision a poster asking my students: “Does my evidence support my explanation? Does my explanation answer the investigative question?”(Zangori, ). As teachers, we need to be able to take student’s ideas seriously in order for them to be challenged academically. By actually listening to student’s ideas we can understand their background knowledge, possible misconceptions and their ideas can guide us to support productive and challenging questions for inquiry (Harlen, 2001). This is an idea that has resonated with me this semester. By asking probing questions, you are asking students to process their thoughts and understanding further. From our readings and class discussions, I have become more aware of different kinds of productive questions (Harlen, 2001) that I’ve since observed in my internship. This really spills over into all content areas; I find myself asking students, “why do you think that?” or “tell me more about that.” Thus far in my internship I am generally asking these questions as they are working on a math problem, probing a student to explain their thinking. Students are often successful at explaining their work, as this is a strategy we incorporate daily in math. However, these types of productive questions should be used in all content areas as they require a higher level of thinking and processing. When I taught a science lesson on heat energy where we explored melting ice cubes, I utilized this strategy as well. It got students thinking more about “why” the ice melted, rather than “what” the ice did. These questioning techniques move students from the observing, and evidence, into the reasoning. Challenging students to explain their thinking, especially by using evidence and reasoning, gets at those higher level thinking skills we hope to develop in our students.

Choice is the second “C” that Harlen (2001) focuses on; students are also more intrinsically motivated when they feel like they have choices in the academic work they are doing.  It gives students a feeling of ownership and desire to learn. Throughout the semester, we have seen that choice is a fundamental element to an inquiry-based teaching approach. For younger students, teachers should focus on concrete concepts, with questions students can answer through investigation, using materials students are familiar with, based upon background knowledge and age-appropriate skills (Colburn, 2000). For example, in class we investigated the concepts of pitch and volume in sound energy. Through our investigation, we were given specific directions and asked to complete three different tests, and then we chose a fourth test with our own variable change. The lesson was inquiry based and allowed choice; however the instructor was also able to guide us to the concepts she wanted us to learn about. Similarly, choice is also promoted through the concept of “de-cookbooking” an activity. “De-cookbooking” refers to modifying a lesson to allow students to change variables through increasing, decreasing, substitution or elimination (Shiland, 1997). Through changing variables, students are given a choice in what and how they investigate. This is yet another approach that can be adapted into my own classroom, especially considering it can be done with varying degrees of guidance, so that the level of inquiry is determined based on the developmental abilities of students.

Constructive feedback provides students with a tool to develop their ideas and also can provide teacher with a knowledge of where students are in their understanding. Feedback can come from teachers, from other students, or even from the student themselves. One challenge a teacher faces when giving informal feedback is not stepping in too soon. This was another notion that impacted my thinking this semester. As teachers, we teach, right? Teaching does not necessitate providing the all the answers. This is an area I will need to be deliberately conscious of when I am teaching in my own classroom. I think it is one’s natural tendency to jump in and “help” when a student doesn’t know the answer. However, allowing children to grapple with their ideas and questions is vital to conceptual knowledge; and through collaboration in investigation students can provide each other with feedback. Listening to students work together and process information is vital as we truly teach. Understanding when, and if, we should interject and ask an appropriate question (not provide an answer, per se) is part of effective science teaching. Ideally, feedback will not only help students overcome any problems they may experience, but potentially add interest and motivation for learning. Constructive feedback can stimulate further questions for student investigation.

Cooperative learning—the fourth “C”— is a teaching strategy that allows students to work in groups and draw upon their own strengths to contribute for the good of the group. From a child development standpoint, cooperative learning supports the idea that all children have different abilities. Working collaboratively in groups allows a teacher to encourage each child to work in their areas of strength. Cooperative learning in most definitely a technique I plan on incorporating into my teaching methods. As I learn more about cooperative learning, I become more convinced of its positive effect on learning. The video case analysis I completed for class followed a teacher as she went from teacher-centered instruction to a more student-centered, cooperative learning focus. I related to the teacher because my initial thoughts about the structure in my future classroom was calm and quiet. My ideas have shifted to an understanding of a different kind of structure – one of a more “controlled chaos” where students are sharing ideas and thoughts. When students interact with each other they: build on their own ideas and background knowledge, help to clarify their own understandings through verbalizing their ideas, and also form more questions(Campbell & Fulton, 2003). Students collaborating in cooperative learning groups could work together to develop a claim, find evidence and support reasoning of a scientific concept (Zembal-Saul, 2013). Small group conversations also build confidence for students to share and challenge in a larger, whole class conversation.

When a child has a high level of self efficacy, or belief that they can accomplish goals, they are also more motivated to do the work and take on challenges as compared to a child with low self efficacy, who may avoid a task because they are concerned that they won’t succeed. This supports Harlen’s fifth “C”, which relates to confidence building. Early this fall, we were exploring magnets in class. Professor Adams was observing as we began working and at one point acknowledged to the class how impressed she was that one particular student was creating a chart to record their findings. While not all confidence building has to happen verbally to the entire class, this instance not only instilled confidence in the student that was creating the chart, but also gave others in the class an idea to also record their findings this way. As a spillover effect, the rest of us felt confident about where our exploration was heading as we organized our observations. Through inquiry-based science education, students are challenged to think at a higher level and given higher expectations from a teacher; this in conjunction with proper support and guidance will build a student’s confidence and increase self efficacy. A confidence building classroom provides a safe environment where students feel comfortable sharing ideas and asking open ended questions.

Before the semester began, I was aware of research based effective student-centered teaching approaches involving cooperative learning, choice, constructive feedback, providing challenge and having high expectations of students. These methods and techniques are strong student-centered teaching approaches in all content areas. I have seen them utilized effectively in other academic areas; as I mentioned previously math, but I have also seen cooperative learning, choice and challenge incorporated in the new reading curriculum Lincoln Public Schools has adopted this year. Science education was not a lens through which I had considered these teaching methods, however. I suppose you could say I would have fallen in line with the “activitymania” philosophy (Moscovici & Nelson, 1998), thinking I was serving my students effectively. After all, I would be providing a hands-on activity, by providing a hypothesis for students to test, and giving them instructions of how to accomplish this; however, a key element of effective science education is left out. Inquiry. By teaching science through an inquiry-based approach, those “best method” approaches live up to their true potential and student learning is maximized. I can see how science can be integrated and incorporated into other academic areas to make for well rounded content knowledge for students. In using an inquiry based approach to science education, you are providing all of the elements of the “5 Cs” that support intrinsic motivation for learning.


Colburn, A. 2000. An inquiry primer. Science Scope, 23(6), 42-44.

Harlen(2001), W. 2001. Primary science; taking the plunge. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Moscovici, H., Nelson, T. 1998. Shifting from activitymania to inquiry. Science and Children,                                  35(4), 14-17.

Shiland, T. W. 1997. Decookbook It! Science and Children, 35(3), 14-18.

Zangori, L., Forbes, C., & Biggers, M. 2012. This is inquiry…right? Science and Children, 50(1),                               48-53.

Zembal-Saul, C., McNeill, K.L., & Hershberger, K. (2013). Whats your evidence? Engaging K-5                               students in constructing explanations in science. New Jersey: Pearson Education. p 19-43.


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