Possible Motivations for Working Hard

In my last post, I wrote about whether we should use prizes or rewards to get our students to work harder. Thank you to those who commented on my post! I agree that praise or awareness of an accomplishment is a wonderful reward, and I also think social rewards like getting to visit a friend's classroom are a great idea. When I'm trying to motivate myself to work on my dissertation, I use rewards like having lunch with a friend or going out to a party - if I don't meet my work goals, I don't do those things.

But the greater question of what motivates us is still heavy on my mind, and I'll tell you why. I have been traveling a lot recently, and also learning more about Korean culture, as I am preparing to spend the summer in Seoul. I am trying to learn some Korean, and I'm realizing how hard it is to be consistent and stick with a rote memorization task, even if you are reasonably interested in it and motivated to learn. Nevertheless, there are other cultures in which people are capable of amazing feats of effort and perseverance, as you can see in many narratives by Korean writers, and by the brilliant blogger who goes by the alias "The Korean". (I am an ESL teacher and it is easy to take it for granted that people can learn foreign languages well, but when you work on doing it yourself, you realize just what a time-consuming and difficult process it is, and one that is not always fun.) The Korean writes that we are trying to make learning too fun, and we have shied away from demanding hard work from students. I think this is true; it is simply a cultural aberration to demand that students repeat something over and over until they get it right, yet that is what we need to do to see progress in our students. The motivational ideas we could give our students could be:

1) You owe it to yourself to be all you can be, and that requires really hard work.

2) Hard work is a habit that you need to develop. even if you don't end up using this actual material in life, you will benefit from the habits of hard work that you developed studying this subject.

3) Related to #2, if you only do the activities that come easily to you, you won't learn the important habits of working hard and sticking with something even though it is difficult. Push yourself.

4) If you think the economy is bad now, just wait. There are fewer and fewer American students getting jobs in science and engineering, because we do not educate ourselves to a high enough level. With so much global competition for jobs, you have to work hard to make sure you will find a place in the job market of the future.

5) Your parents have worked so hard to make life comfortable for you; you owe it to them to do the same and ensure that you'll be able to take care of them in their old age. Any others I'm forgetting?


There's also a study somewhere that shows that for many things, material rewards for tasks decreases someone's inherent enjoyment of performing the task. =] Great post!
I agree with Emily--it is a great post. I would also add that students, especially the younger ones, need to realize that learning is a lifelong investment and process. There is never a time when they won't be expected to learn something new, whether they're raising children, starting a new job or going back to school, and much of it will be necessary and sometimes thankless. I've been writing a research paper about adult learning, and what I've discovered is that culturally and socially, we instill the expectation that the child years are for learning and the adult years are for working, so it's no wonder we have so many young students who think that once they're out of school they can "quit" or who expect to be rewarded for deepening their knowledge base. If we change that expectation, I think we can change the entitlement behavior, to some degree. The first thing I ask my students is why they want to learn what they're asking to be taught, and the answers are often rather surprising, but consistently along the lines of confidence building and better self-esteem. Material rewards don't address those needs--social rewards and positive reinforcement do, so that's what I think we all need to stick with as instructors and mentors. A student will always remember who made a difference in their life and who inspired them for whatever reason, but do any of us remember how many gold stars or fancy pencils we got for scoring 100% on our vocabulary tests? Hardly likely. I appreciate your post, Julia, and I think this is something that merits ongoing discussion. It will be interesting to find out what others think.
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