• Dr. Nickey Woods

Motivating learners during times of uncertainty

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in America’s healthcare system, it has also laid bare the inequities and challenges faced by many students at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels. When schools were forced to close or shift much of their educational operations to remote learning, students without access to adequate technology were disenfranchised almost immediately. Lack of access to laptops, reliable internet service, and other resources mirrors existing disparities in our educational system and by all accounts, will likely expand the opportunity gap for poor students and students of color.

Professor and author Anthony Abraham Jack refers to low-income students of color, who enter college from distressed, overcrowded, and under-resourced schools as the Doubly Disadvantaged. In thinking about the experiences of these students during the pandemic, I wonder how the Doubly Disadvantaged are faring, especially as projections suggest major academic impacts from COVID-19 closures for students, especially in mathematics.

Educators face a daunting task during the next few years to overcome these challenges. In recent months, the Learning Policy Institute and others have provided digital resources to support student learning during the pandemic. The effectiveness of such resources depend in large part on student motivation and engagement. 2020 has been an emotionally and mentally taxing year for many of us. We must consider these challenges as we think about student learning and motivation. I offer strategies here.

Simply defined, motivation is what starts us and keeps us going to achieve a goal. Motivation accounts for 50% of achievement in education and training. In fact, aptitude, or one’s natural ability, is less important than effort. Three indicators of motivated behavior include active goal pursuit, persistence, and mental effort:

  • Active goal pursuit: Has a student’s intention to learn something turned into action?

  • Persistence: Has the student stopped engaging in the learning process?

  • Mental effort: Is the student working to develop new knowledge?

Indicators of motivated behavior are influenced by interest, self-efficacy, attributions, and goals. To enhance motivation, teachers should consider the following when planning activities and providing feedback to students:

  • Interest: Students, at any age, learn better when they are interested in the material

  • Self-efficacy: Students learn better when they see themselves as competent for the task

  • Attributions: Students learn better when they attribute academic successes and failures to their own efforts during learning

  • Goals: Students learn better when they want to understand the material – less when they want to outperform others

Teachers can impact student motivation in many ways. They can ask themselves if learning material is holding the interest of their students, if material is challenging enough but not so challenging that students don’t see themselves as competent, if teacher feedback ties success to effort, and if students are actively engaged in setting learning goals.

Expectancy Value Theory

One cognitive perspective related to motivation are expectancy-value theories. Expectancies are people’s beliefs about their abilities to perform a task, while values refer to the beliefs people have about why they might engage in a task. Taken together, expectancy and value are strong predictors of academic performance.

In order to enhance the perceived value of a task, teachers can foster the following:

  • "Hold your nose" - Describe the benefits of completing a learning activity

  • "Here is what you risk by avoiding it"- Describe what students risk by avoiding a learning activity

  • "You are good at this kind of task!" - Praise students while reminding them of past successes

In order to address student’s expectancy for success, teachers can do the following:

  • "You can do this!" - Maintain high expectations and perceptions of ability; assign challenging but “doable” tasks

  • "This is why you need to know this" - Provide clear reasoning for learning tasks

  • "How would you like to approach this task?" - Allowing student choice and control in choosing tasks enhances motivation


In some instances, these efforts may not be enough. In those instances, consider offering a tangible and valued incentive. Incentives can be used to prompt students to engage in certain behaviors, as well as discourage certain actions (missing class, not completing assignments). Keep in mind that incentives are only impactful if the student places importance on the reward, and that rewards have to be obtainable in order to be motivating. For example, a student will not be motivated to do well on an assignment if the assignment is so difficult that it is not realistically achievable.

Motivation Destroyers

Vague or changing goals and feedback, unnecessary barriers to learning, creating competition among students, “busy work” with no perceived value, lack of autonomy and choice, and negative or overly critical feedback all work to decrease student motivation. Self-reflective practices can ensure that educators are not unintentionally disenfranchising students through the use of strategies that kill student motivation.

A final word on motivation

Research also tells us that a learner’s emotional state can impact motivation. As the pandemic hits close to home for students -- and for some students, exacerbating already challenging life circumstances -- teachers should consider modifying expectations for learning. It is unlikely that a distracted, emotionally wrought student will be fully engaged in their educational pursuits, especially during times of uncertainty. In response to the pandemic and social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death, some university professors opted to modify assignments. Being flexible and responsive to students and meeting them where they are is always good educational practice.

Finally, there are some things that as educators, fall outside of our locus of control. Any teacher will tell you that at times, even our best-intentioned strategies and ideas won’t work. It is in those times that we must take a deep breath and remind ourselves that we are human, tomorrow is a new day, and that in teaching, we are positively impacting people’s lives for generations to come.

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