Motivating Students? I’m not a Sport Psychologist

Watch Aaron Beighle explain how to motivate students with P.R.A.I.S.E.

Motivation Sign - Motivating StudentsMotivation, and the fundamentals of motivating students, is something we know is important, but I think it’s something we don’t fully grasp and fully optimize. In my experience, some of this disconnect has been that the nuggets of valuable, applicable information for teachers is buried under theory. While theory certainly has its place, weeding through theory can be confusing, frustrating, and at times futile (at least for me). Further, while most teacher preparation programs have a Psychology and Sociology of Sport class, covering the content of what could be at least two courses during one course doesn’t provide much time to dig deep into how to motivate students.

In my schooling, specifically my graduate work, I have had the opportunity to take three or four Sport/Exercise Psychology courses. I approached all of these courses knowing I wanted to work with youth. While I probably should have been listening more intently during classes, I was doodling ways to make the theories come to life for teachers. To this end, the following acronym was created. It combines parts of Achievement Goal Theory and Self-Determination Theory and attempts to make them applicable. To quality, I understand that some disagree with combining theories and borrowing pieces and parts, but in my experience this has worked for teachers and therefore I am sharing it here.

P.R.A.I.S.E.

Perceived Competence –

In a nutshell, this is a student’s beliefs about her abilities. The key is that it is the student’s beliefs. So how do you make a student perceive herself as being competent? Provide her with successful experiences. Start with the easiest activity first and then invite students to try more difficult skills or activities. Ensure the number of repetitions they receive is maximized. How do you do that? See my previous management blogs, but in short, be efficient with management and instruction. Provide individual, meaningful feedback to allow students to refine their skills. Repetition and refinement are essential. Focus on the process…the product will follow (sometimes).

Encourage students to perform your cues. Most students can perform the cues to hitting a tennis forehand. They might not be able to hit a cross-court game winner, but focusing on the process provides the chance for success and learning. I am not an “everybody gets a trophy” advocate, but I am an “everybody gets a chance to be successful in physical education” advocate. 

Relatedness –

In brief, this means make a connection. This connection can be with you and the students, student to student, or student to activity. Build relationships with students. Focus on “getting to know” your students…more than you know your content. Sometimes we focus so much on outcomes, objectives, and our perfect lessons/activities and lose sight of building relationships with students.

Try to find something with which you can connect with each student. I used to get up and watch cartoons on Saturday morning because I knew my students watched “Recess”. I knew as much about T.J. Detweiler and the Ashley’s as they did. I also listened to music that made my ears bleed, but it was what middle schoolers listened to. And I wanted to make sure it was appropriate.

Provide time and activities that allow students to connect with each other. Cooperative activities early on and throughout the year lend themselves to this, but any small group or partner activity does as well. Let students invent games…and use some of them later. Using the game invented by a student you struggle to connect with just might be the key to getting him/her to connect with you and others.

 

Autonomy –

This simply means to let students have some say in their learning experiences. For instance, provide an easy (catch the beanbag with one hand), and medium (catch the beanbag with two hands) or a difficult (catch the bean bag with the back of your hands) activity. Or simply teach by invitation and say, “If you like that activity, keep doing it. If you want something that might be a bit more difficult try this.”

During fitness activities use music to time an activity and let students choose the workload. “While the music is on, pick your favorite upper-body challenge and see how many times you can do it.” This lets students select the intensity.

Allow students to opt out of participating two times per semester or grading period. No excuse needed, they just don’t have to be active and it doesn’t impact their grade. Sometimes you don’t feel like being active; afford that opportunity to students. I use this with university students and it works well.

And please consider your dress out policy. This is a topic for a different blog or discussion, but I find it hard to believe that failing students because they don’t want to change clothes in a locker room full of their peers does much to motivate them. (Stepping off my soap box). Create tracks/sub-courses (e.g. Team Sports, Innovative, Individual, and Fitness) at the high school level and allow students to choose the track they want to take that grading period.

 

Individuality –

In full confession this isn’t a part of either of the theories I mentioned above. However, my acronym was PEARS before that….and that just didn’t work. This too involves getting to know your students. Treat them fairly. Meet them where they are, not where you are.

Emphasize that activity choices are individual. Physical education is exposing them to as many as possible, and they get to pick what they enjoy and what has meaning to them. Ask students what they like and don’t like. Treat students as individuals once you get to know them. I hope I am making it clear that I firmly believe the first step to motivating students is to get to know them as individuals.

 

Social Support –

Keep in mind the role peers play in student decisions. Involve family when possible. At the middle or high school levels this gets tough. This might be a good reason to ask students, “What kind of social support do you need to be active? Peers? Family? Significant others?” Physical activity clubs can also help create a culture of social support. Walking, hiking, intramurals (intramural does not mean just team sports), and orienteering clubs are all great ways for students to be active and connect with students who have similar interests.

Be a role model. Regardless of the age you teach, students watch you and emulate you. Be aware of your actions. Eye rolls, scowls, ignoring students, rude comments in a moment of frustration. They all leave an impact. Frankly, our students look up to us. Give them something good to look up to.

 

Enjoyment –

Essentially this means busy, happy, good. I am teasing. Just making sure you are paying attention. “FUN” is not the only thing we are about in physical education. We have content to teach and we are about education/learning. However, “FUN” should be a major part of everything we do, just as physical activity should be a major part of what we do. The challenge is to provide learning experiences to teach our content that are active and are fun.

One way to make lessons fun is to make students successful, which goes back to Perceived Competence. In her book, No Sweat, Dr. Michelle Segar provides an anecdote of a client who reports she has never had a fun experience being active. Never. Wow! Think about that. Did she have physical education? If she did, what does that say about her experiences? Eek. Creating a safe (physically and emotionally) environment through effective management increases the chances students will have fun. Using a variety of activities in a balanced curriculum also helps ensure students will experience fun activities in physical education.

 

In summary, in our efforts to promote physical activity for all youth, I think we are wise to borrow from the exercise/sport psychology literature to seek ways to motivate students. Above are just a few ideas. My intent is for teachers, as they teach, prepare lessons, or reflect to think “…did I include any elements of P.R.A.I.S.E? Could I include more?” I think the answer will be, “Yes” to both. And your students will be better for it. Give it a shot and see if it helps. Thanks for being teachers and THRIVE!

 

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