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Motivation – Evidence Based Education

In this post, we are going to continue analyzing the book How I Wish I’d Taught Maths by Craig Barton. This book is focused on evidence-based education and today we are going to talk about the second chapter, Motivation.

Motivation Models

Barton explains that he was a geek and has always like mathematics. However, when he began teaching he realized that not every teenager enjoys doing math equations on a Friday night.

He thought that the vision the students had about mathematics was very fixed on whether or not they performed well in the subject.

What can a teacher do to improve student motivation?

Barton is more than aware that trying to answer that question in just one chapter of a book is not possible. However, it is essential to address this problem because learning and motivation share such an important and complex relationship.

There is no universal model of motivation, but there are common themes that speak about what motivates us.

Sense of Control

The book Drive by D.H. Pink (2011) suggests that the key to motivation is autonomy and a sense of control. However, we should be careful about how we use this idea in the classroom or a learning method.

According to the work of Kirschner and Van Merriënboer (2013), it seems that students are not able to make good decisions, and their work identifies the three main problems:

  1. Students are not able to select the tasks that are most appropriate for their learning because doing so would require knowing what the task is and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
  2. They usually choose the task that they prefer, which isn’t always best for their learning and are reluctant to choose tasks that they are not familiar with.
  3. The paradox of choice. People appreciate being able to choose but having too many choices creates anxiety. The more options we have the more we have the perception of ‘missed opportunities’. We see it when we are in a restaurant with an extensive menu.

The Value of Getting Work Done

Pink identifies believing that your work has value (intrinsic or extrinsic) is the second determining factor in motivation. Students being aware that what they learn at school is useful, relevant, and meaningful is important to their motivation. Martin, (2016).

Math in Real Life

The question, how will this help me in real life? is quite common in math classes. However, solving problems using real-world contexts is not always motivating. Many times we have to modify the context and simplify them which makes them lose their interest and relevance.

Other times, trying to design realistic contexts can create problems that confuse our students and divert their attention from what’s really important.

Additionally, it is complicated to design interesting contexts for all of our students since they can have very diverse interests.

Having a Purpose

Barton thought that the only way to make mathematics valuable to his students was to make it relevant to their lives. However, after reading some work by Meyer (2015) he realized that the need to calculate more efficiently is enough of a reason to justify learning a new skill. We can present students with a situation that pushes them into complicated calculations, and then teach them the shortcut.

For example:

  • We ask the students to choose a number between 1 and 10.
  • After we write the equation:

  • We ask students to substitute their numbers into the expression.
  • After a minute or so, ask if someone has gotten an answer of 0. Those that have selected the number 7 will raise their hands.
  • Tell them that there is actually another number that will give them 0 as an answer and ask them to find it.
  • After a few more minutes ask them ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was an easier way to find this mystery number?’
  • Now you have the opportunity to introduce factorizing quadratic equations.

At Smartick we usually use this resource in tutorials. For example, before showing how to calculate G.C.F with the factorization algorithm, we try to find it by calculating all of the divisors of the numbers.


Once students realize that this is not an effective method, we can explain to them how the factorization of prime numbers can be used to ease their calculations.

Rewards and Punishments

In the chapter, there is also a section dedicated to extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Barton concludes that intrinsic motivation is better in the long run but external rewards and punishments also play a key role and push students into virtuous circles.


And finally, it discusses the importance of mastery.

According to Tollefson (2000), a student’s effort to a task is based on the hope of success in accomplishing the task and the reward received. Middleton and Spanias (1999) explained that students’ perception of their success in mathematics is strongly related to their motivation, and motivation is directly linked to achievements. If students succeed or believe that they can become successful, they will be motivated.

At Smartick we believe in evidence-based education. We study and learn about educational materials from research in order to offer a scientifically based learning method for our students to understand and enjoy mathematics.

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