How Are Students Motivated?

Zull explores the brain and determines that in order to get ideas about learning we need to look within the brain (Zull, 17). He also draws upon the research done by David Kolb, who suggests that learning originates in concrete experience, requires reflection, developing abstractions, and actively testing those abstractions (Zull 18). Simply put, learning is a scientific method.


Zull believes that in order to better understand learning, we need to know where it happens, and what parts of the brain it happens in. He does not want us to assume that learning only happens in one place. Zull believes that the learning cycle is about life itself (Zull, 48). And that regardless of what we think, our brains are always learning and taking new shape, its just a matter of accepting and wanting those changes.

This is More Important Than That

Abraham Maslow theorized that human beings are motivated by those needs that have not yet been met (Maslow, 4). He believed that there are basic needs that must be satisfied before any other need can be accomplished. For instance, Maslow believed that if an individual was hungry, he or she would not be able to accomplish another need to the best of their ability, until their hunger was satisfied (Maslow, 5). This is a physiological need, and is the foundation in the Hierarchy of Needs.

The pyramid above illustrates what Maslow believed to be the basis of motivation, and when these needs are met, learning becomes positive.

Manipulation is Hazardous

So far we have learned that rewards do not work in the long run, and students are not motivated until their hunger is satisfied. Alfie Kohn presents another opinion on how to motivate students. He believes that in order for learning to happen, we must provide an engaging curriculum and a caring atmosphere for our students (Brandt). This means, according to Kohn, educators need to be careful with rewards and punishment. For instance, if a student is already motivated to do something like reading, and we offer them a reward for finishing a book, the student will think we are trying to control them (Brandt). We learned from Zull that our brains want to be safe, and if someone is trying to be in control our brain uses survival techniques and becomes less motivated in reading, and more interested in why you offered them a reward.

The Brain Flows to the Sweet Spot

Robert Yerkes and John Dodson proposed that when our boredom level increases, our performance level decreases (Goleman). It is only when we become aroused and engaged in an activity that our performance improves (Goleman). In their research, Yerkes and Dodson found that there is a certain area where performance is at a maximum, and anything below or beyond that point will lead to trouble.


Taking a look at the image, we can see that the downward curve shows the negative effects of stress on thinking and learning, or performance in general, and the upward part reflects the energizing effects of arousal and interest (Goleman).

Clearly Yerkes and Dodson saw a correlation between learning and engaging activities, just like Zull, Maslow and Kohn did. But Yerkes and Dodson brought in the stress factor, whereas our previous thinkers discussed ways of resolving stress.

Great! But How Can My Students Stay Enthusiastic?

I'm including a video here of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who offers information on what makes people happy. In this video, Mihaly talks about money, and how income does not sustain happiness. From an educational standpoint, Mihaly is trying to say that rewards do not lead to happiness; the content and the pleasure of the material are what matters the most, because it is lasting, and will be remembered. Take a look.

Mihaly believes that people will reach their potential when they are engaged with an activity that creates ecstasy. It is almost as though reality is suspended. And according to Mihaly, when you are engaged in the process of creating something new, your attention does not focus on the negatives, and your not worried about comfort level, acceptance, or hunger. Mihaly's theory suggests that, when in ecstasy, Zull, Maslow, and Kohn's theories are out the door, because we are not worried about anything other than creating something powerful, a spontaneous "flow".

Next Up: Motivational Teaching

Reference Guide

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. "Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow." TED. Ted Conference LLC, Feb. 2004. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.

Goleman, Daniel. "Aiming for the Brain's Sweet Spot." Donkey o.d. Web. 27 Dec. 2006.

Kohn, Alfie. "Punished by Rewards? A Conversation with Alfie Kohn." Interview by Ron Brandt. Alfie Kohn. ASCD Conference, Sept. 1995. Web. 28 Jan. 2010. .

Maslow, Abraham. "A Theory of Human Motivation." Psychological Review 50 (1943): 370-96. Print.

Zull, James. The Art of Changing the Brain Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Grand Rapids: Stylus, 2002. Print.

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