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Choosing the right tools to boost student motivation

The COVID-19 pandemic has made online and hybrid learning the norm—but today's reality can have a negative impact on student motivation
By Martin McKay, Founder & CEO, Texthelp
November 18th, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has made online and hybrid learning the norm—but today's reality can have a negative impact on student motivation

COVID-19 has placed global education in an unprecedented state of flux. Faced with both new and long-existing challenges, teachers are working harder than ever. They are being called to excel at a job that many of them were not trained for. They’re being asked to create an environment conducive to academic achievement without face-to-face interaction with their students.

Many of the difficulties that our educators are facing today have not been directly caused by COVID-19; they were merely exacerbated by it. Even before schools closed in the spring, teachers were already grappling with a crisis in student motivation.

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Student motivation is important because it can be directly linked to attainment. In a survey conducted in 2018, approximately 29 percent of students reported that they were “not engaged” and 24 percent reported being “actively disengaged.” Combined with the added challenge of virtual instruction, motivating students continues to preoccupy educators. In a recent survey on the difficulties of distance learning, teachers cited their biggest challenge to supporting their students was keeping them all engaged. This drop in student motivation is expected to continue as hybrid and distance learning models become normalized.

This “new normal” in education requires meeting old and new challenges with novel solutions. Education leaders should put their focus on giving teachers the tools they need to face the challenge of encouraging engagement and increasing student motivation–even when they are not physically present in the classroom–while also freeing up time for them to focus on one-to-one instruction and support for their students.

Technology as an effective tool for student motivation

Research has shown that education technology can help improve student outcomes when executed effectively. For example, in a study across grades 1-8 in the U.S., introducing tools such as student response systems devices and computer software improved student motivation and engagement by 9 percent. When deployed along with strategies such as micro-learning, gamification, and effective feedback from teachers, edtech tools can go a long way in inspiring motivation.

The use of edtech tools has surged in response to the pandemic-related school closures that began last March. With distance and hybrid learning becoming the new norm, our reliance on edtech will only continue to increase. However, in order to truly realize the potential of these tools, we must invest in ones that will allow teachers to support and encourage their students, while decreasing their workload.

When determining what tools help to achieve those goals, teachers and education leaders should look for products that:

Employ bite-sized exercises and lessons: Research into micro-learning has shown that breaking lessons up into small learning units with micro-assessments can better engage students in online and blended learning environments. In a recent study examining mobile-based micro-learning and assessment homework activities on students’ motivation and learning performance, researchers found that students in an experimental group who experienced micro-learning reported significantly higher perceived autonomy and competence, and higher levels of learner satisfaction and achievement. Interactive exercises like definitions, formulas, small paragraphs, and flashcards with micro-assessment can help encourage student participation and motivation.

Apply elements of gamification: Platforms designed with properties of gamification can also help drive student motivation. Educators can incorporate leader boards or point systems within their lesson plans to help students feel externally rewarded. Although studies into gamification’s impacts are still inconclusive, there are some grounds for optimism: a recent meta-analysis of 30 independent interventions drawn from 24 quantitative studies showed gamification can increase student learning and performance. When used appropriately it can foster enthusiasm, fulfill students’ needs for recognition, and even promote goal-setting, leading to higher levels of engagement.

Deliver timely feedback: Timely and bite-sized feedback helps students to feel successful as they learn, which acts as a strong motivator for students. However, teachers often have to balance their workload with delivering frequent and high-quality feedback. Technology offers a unique opportunity to ease these challenges. Edtech tools that automate and standardize assessments and deliver instant feedback to students allow teachers to allocate their time on providing individual instruction, support, and deeper feedback instead of grading.

Are domain-specific: Focus on a particular subject area. Reading and math are often key areas of focus, however, achievement gaps in writing are also a particular challenge for educators. Given the scale of achievement gaps in writing, it is important to look at solutions that address this particular problem. Research shows that motivating students to write more, and to do so in longer bursts of time, can improve writing fluency. Performance feedback, such as commenting on the number of words written compared to previous writing, can help students to write more. Technology tools automating performance feedback offer teachers an opportunity to improve student writing fluency and save valuable teacher time.

Technology can benefit teachers and students alike

COVID-19 has pushed the rapid adoption of technology into the mainstream and it is likely here to stay. As such, we must leverage its potential to help educators create greater opportunities for academic achievement regardless of the learning environment. With a plethora of choices, thoughtful consideration should go into the decision-making around edtech tools. Those that rise to the top should address challenges like student motivation and engagement while also complementing the work of teachers and lessening their workloads, enabling them to spend time where it’s needed – with the students.

About the Author:

Martin McKay is the founder and CEO of Texthelp, a leading education technology company focused on helping learners of all ages and abilities improve their reading, writing, and math skills. Martin has spent work life developing education technology. His current areas of R&D include learning analytics and the automated assessment of writing and oral reading fluency through products such as WriQ and Fluency Tutor. Martin currently serves in an advisory capacity on the Universal Design for Learning council, and has previously served on the Assistive Technology Industry Association Board as well as the NIMAS board for the USA Office of Special Education Programs.

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