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Dynamic Motivation

What motivates and reinforces you as a lifelong learner? When we consider our students’ motivation we often get lost in lengthy philosophical debates about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. We talk about students getting too much reinforcement and about reinforcement in the classroom not working. When I think about the role reinforcement plays in my personal motivation in daily life, it’s easier for me to broaden my beliefs about application in the classroom.

Consider your experience at a gym, for example. Historically, finding motivation to work out has been most challenging for me. Let’s face it, going to the gym can make us uncomfortable and activates our insecurities. Even so, I keep going back. The gym has been intentional about increasing reinforcement opportunities because they know working out is hard. Reinforcement is present there around every corner. Sometimes it is hearing “ good job “ from the trainer. Sometimes it’s knowing my heart rate was in “the zone” for a large amount of time, sometimes it’s lifting a heavier weight than I did last week, sometimes it’s running faster or burning more calories than the person next to me, sometimes it’s the craft coffee that I will drink when I am finished. The truth is that any of these things can reinforce me on a given day. While my motivation and preference vary from day to day (and frankly moment to moment), the trainers provide ongoing and varied reinforcement continuously. They have “dialed in” reinforcement by giving challenges, special offerings, prizes, praise, and live data about my health statistics.  All of these are reinforcement.

Just like my experience at the gym, reinforcement is necessary, planned and should be frequent and dynamic in the classroom. A learner is not either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. They are both and what reinforces each of them varies from moment to moment. Reinforcement is not one static system or a token economy.  It is systematic and intentional. It should be programmed. What opportunities for attention, praise, competition, tangible rewards, choice, and independence do you provide as reinforcement for students, understanding that learner variability includes motivation? What lessons can we take from coaches and personal trainers related to motivation and reinforcement? We would love to hear your ideas.​


Kelly Miller