Happy Learners

Discovering the secret ingredient for student motivation.

GUEST COLUMN | by Vinod Lobo

CREDIT Learning Upgrade studentsWhat motivates a student to spend more than 20 hours completing a rigorous online curriculum both inside and outside of class? Teachers strive to motivate students, but how can they use technology to further motive even the hardest to reach students to not only complete rigorous work, but do it in a way that students approach the work with joy and a sense of accomplishment?

I found an unexpected answer to these questions during my recent visit to a school not unlike many others across the country, one with a high at-risk student population that

Its educators and leadership created a rare, elusive, almost magical atmosphere where students are self-motivated to learn with technology.

struggled to motivate these kids to own their learning and enjoy the fruits of their labors. The students there made significant gains within one school year using an online supplementary program in math and English. The secret ingredient to this school’s approach surprised me: igniting a joy for learning!

Field trip

The school I visited was an urban middle school in San Diego where 88 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 98 percent minority, and 42 percent are English learners. At the end of this past school year, I was invited to join 140 students to celebrate the past year’s accomplishments over pizza.

To kick off the celebration, an English Language Learner and recent immigrant was awarded the grand prize of a tablet computer for her achievements. Tears filled her eyes as she accepted the award, and I will never forget the look of accomplishment and self worth on her face. This one student had spent more than 40 hours completing several online courses at home – on her own time, not just completing them, but also mastering each concept along the way. This student recognized that she had earned this herself, moving step-by-step to climb the ladder of lessons until all were completed. She was no longer a lost new arrival, but rather, a student well on the road to academic success.

As the rest of the recipients were announced, students clapped in between bites of pizza. I thought to myself, all this work for pizza?

A reason to celebrate

Another student had transferred to the school just two months before the party. With a solid plan for success, he used a school-provided netbook at home, working every evening and over weekends so he could catch up with his classmates and join the party. While we walked to his class, student accolades and accomplishments covered the walls. He pointed excitedly to his — proof that he had not only completed the course, but also achieved greater than 95 percent proficiency in each of the math and ELA lessons that were completed.

Suddenly, other students crowded around, excited to share their successes with me —and it hit me: the excitement wasn’t about pizza — these students were proud of what they had done, of what they had learned, and accomplished.

A sixth-grade student completed 6th, 7th, and 8th grade courses despite starting sixth grade below grade level and behind his peers. Through a combination of in-class, after school, and at-home time, this student had completed 60 lessons to over 95 percent proficiency, with roughly 25 hours time-on-task per grade level course to earn his spot at the party. Through a combination of the right amount of support and encouragement from teachers, involvement from school leaders, and completing lessons (from Learning Upgrade) that are chock-full of music, games, song and videos (no more drill and kill!) students surpassed all expectations. They were motivated!

CREDIT Learning UpgradeUnlocking the joy of learning

At that point, I realized that this school was special. Its educators and leadership created a rare, elusive, almost magical atmosphere where students are self-motivated to learn with technology. This school cracked the code on harnessing the joy of learning to motivate their students!

It wasn’t a few slices of pizza they were after. It was recognition, the feeling of achievement and accomplishment, a boost in self-confidence, and the fact that they seized the opportunity to prove that they can “do it”.

For some, this may have been the first time in their lives that they felt confident enough to engage in their learning, let alone succeed. This was written all over the faces of students at the party.

Support from the top

The success at this school started with leadership. In this case, the vice-principal spearheaded the initiative, and encouraged a group of teachers to move forward with their plans to motivate students to achieve greatness. He visited every classroom giving each student the chance to share what he or she was doing and brag about progress being made. Because of his position, students and teachers took his message to heart. He offered praise and reminded every student of the goal, their success, and the prize that awaited them. He took the time to show he cared.

This hands-on approach touched every student in the school with a personal and exciting message: when you achieve this goal, you will be rewarded and recognized for your accomplishments.

Inspiring teachers make motivated students

My visit to these classrooms, talking with students, and a number of teachers was inspirational, to say the least. Teachers made a point to have daily conversations with students about progress, encouraged them to finish, provided support when needed, showed on-screen reports using classroom projectors, and proudly displayed the gold certificates from each student on classroom walls. They created an atmosphere where academic success was encouraged, rewarded and cool!

On the day of the party, these teachers walked proudly into the library with their students. They were a team, working together, like a coach and players going up to claim their hard-earned trophy.

Enjoy motivating and instilling a joy for learning in your students

It takes work by leadership and educators alike to create the joy of learning in students using a tech-based curriculum. The reward is the magic atmosphere where students are motivated to complete rigorous individualized lessons on their own. The smile on the face of a student as he or she shares recent accomplishments truly says it all. Every student can be motivated to achieve great things by adding some joy to their world of learning.

Vinod Lobo is the founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade, which publishes online courses to teach math and reading through songs, video, and games. In 1998, he brought together educators, musicians, artists and programmers to produce innovative, engaging lessons designed to support struggling students in reading and math. Through the incorporation of song, video, games and educational research, Learning Upgrade has helped over 1 million students find a new path to learning success. Follow him @learningupgrade


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