The discouraging and ineffective process of doing school is a mainstay in the lives of many students. And those are the successful ones. As every teacher knows, unsuccessful students often lack the motivation to do even this much work. For many teachers, the fact that a student completes all her homework is evidence that she is learning the material—and of course, that does sometimes happen. But when homework is experienced as busywork—a common experience for many students—learning is a fringe benefit. Doing hours of homework every night does not ensure that learning has taken place.
Our task is to convert student work from busywork into an essential part of the learning process. Doing this can have a profound effect on a student’s motivation, which, in turn, can dramatically increase how much and how deeply she is learning.
Most importantly, well-designed work teaches the student more than the immediate learning goals. It also teaches her to become a more metacognitive and self-directed learner. In other words, it is an opportunity to teach her some of the basic skills of learning.
Reframing the purpose of homework and schoolwork can also boost a student’s sense of ownership of her own learning. For many students, work is done for the teacher. They do it because they want to please, they are afraid of being humiliated, or they want the rewards. Only when the student starts to perceive this work as an essential step in learning will she do the work, not for the teacher, but for herself.
Appropriately designed student work can boost intrinsic motivation. Students will begin to internalize their motivation and decision-making, rather than taking their cues from others. This is, of course, central to students becoming self-directed, effective learners.