How Reinforcement Strategies Can Motivate Student Learning and Improve Outcomes
Discovering what will motivate your students to learn is the first step in making real gains in student achievement. Investing real time and effort at the beginning of the school year into determining what motivates each student individually is not only best-practice for creating an inclusive and individualized learning environment for every student, but can make a marked difference in everything from decreasing challenging behavior to increasing student learning.
By definition, motivation is the desire an individual has for a given consequence. When a child is truly motivated, they will engage in desired behaviors in order to obtain this given consequence, whether it be computer time, a snack, or social time with friends. Motivation is critical to student learning as it helps students direct their behavior toward specific goals, can energize students to put more effort into engaging in specific tasks or behavior, and can ultimately enhance their performance. As a child’s teacher, an important part of your job is determining what motivates each of your students individually.
So how do I determine what motivates my student to learn?
When trying to determine what motivates an individual student it is important to keep an open mind and pay attention. One of the most important things to know about motivation is that motivation is individual. What motivates one student won’t necessarily motivate another student, and likewise, just because something motivates you, doesn’t mean it will motivate someone else. For this reason, when you first meet a student at the beginning of the year, pay specific attention to what the student likes and dislikes. If you do not make an effort to determine what motivates each student individually, you risk inadvertently reinforcing undesired behaviors, as what may be reinforcing to one student may be punishing to another.
Communication: To determine what motivates a student, one of the first things you can do is communicate with the student’s family, former teachers, or other people (including peers) who know the student. Oftentimes there is no better resource at your fingertips than a student’s parents, as they typically know their child better than anyone else. Talking to families at the beginning of the year can save you the time and the headache of determining what motivates a child, especially when it isn’t necessarily obvious.
Preference Assessments: Preference assessments are a simple and straightforward way to identify a student’s favorite things so that they can be used as rewards or reinforcers for desired behaviors. There are several different kinds of preference assessments you can use:
- Interview or questionnaire: Interviews or questionnaires are quick and easy ways to gather information about a student. You can use open ended questions, comparison questions or surveys. While these are the easiest kind of preference assessment to implement, they may not be the most accurate.
- Direct Observation: This consists of presenting an individual with free access to items he/she will like and recording the amount of time the student engages with the item. These help you determine the strongest preference your student may have out of a group of items. These take a little more time and effort than a questionnaire or interview, but tend to be more accurate as you actually get to see a student engaging with an item.
- Systematic Assessment: Presenting objects or activities to a student as single objects or pairs of objects. This will help you determine the level of preferences for a student. This type of preference assessment takes the most effort and the most time, but it is also the most accurate.
It is important to update preference assessments frequently to avoid boredom with highly preferred items. You don’t want a student to be utilizing a reinforcer too often that they get bored with it. The goal of the preference assessment is to determine the reinforces for your student that you can use to motivate student learning and increase appropriate behavior.
The Rules of Reinforcement
Once you have used a preference assessment to identify what you can use as a reinforcer, it is time to start teaching and using this knowledge to motivate student learning. When using reinforcers, here are a few quick rules to follow:
- Individualize: As discussed above, individualizing reinforcement is the first step to ensuring that it is effective in motivating your student. Taking the time to use preference assessments and speak with people who know the student is invaluable in individualizing reinforcement
- Limit Access: You want reinforcement to be meaningful. To do this it is important to ensure that reinforcement is always and only contingent upon a desired behavior. This will keep your students motivated to learn and engage in positive behaviors.
- Provide Novelty and Variety: In order to ensure that your students don’t become bored with reinforcers, and therefore unmotivated, you want to make sure you rotate and vary reinforcers. Once again, this is why spending time carefully determining what your student’s reinforcers are is crucial.
- Systematically Fade Reinforcement Over Time: Eventually the goal is to have your students be able to complete tasks and engage in positive behavior without reinforcement. To avoid your students becoming dependent upon the reinforcer to engage in the task, it’s important to gradually fade the reinforcer over time.
Remember that positive reinforcement is perhaps the most valuable tool you have as a teacher to promote positive behavior and student achievement. Knowing how to determine what motivates each of your students individually and how to effectively use reinforcement is one of the most valuable teaching skills you can bring to the classroom.
To learn more about reinforcement strategies and to find out about other tools and resources you can use in your classroom, check out the slides below and watch our most recent webinar!