Willpower, Motivation, and Student Achievement

By Haskvitz, Alan | AMLE Magazine, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Willpower, Motivation, and Student Achievement


Haskvitz, Alan, AMLE Magazine


Perhaps nothing is as frustrating as having to write "Not working to potential" on a student's report card. Is the problem the teacher's inability to motivate the student, or is it the student's lack of willpower to achieve?

Contrary to popular belief, the teacher is not solely responsible when a student does not learn. As Piaget said, a child learns when ready to learn. A teacher can make the subject matter attractive and relevant; the decision to learn comes from within the child.

Lack of willpower is not lack of motivation. Being motivated is the first step toward creating willpower, but motivation must always come from inside to have a lasting impact.

Everyone has willpower; the problem is motivating students to use it productively. It takes as much willpower not to do something as it takes to do something. Students exercise their willpower when they choose not to do assignments, knowing it may mean the difference between passing the class and having to repeat it the following year.

The Greeks had a word for students who displayed such symptoms. They called it akrasia, which essentially means "the weakness of will or the wasting of time." Reasons for akrasia include the inability to visualize longterm goals, the need for instant gratification, impulsiveness, and emotional instability.

Willpower on the Brain

Building willpower is complicated by the way the brain handles data. Change comes from a conscious decision that is reinforced repeatedly and stored in the reninangiotensin system or signaling protein. In other words, the more often a student hears something, the more the brain accepts it and the more difficult it is for change to occur.

The reticular activating system, which is located near the top of the brain stem, compares incoming data with accepted values that have been stored in memory. The system notes what action is needed and sends an impulse to the amygdala, which is located near the center of the brain. Here, the information is dealt with in a friend-or-foe format. The amygdala produces the appropriate chemicals to initiate action.

If the data challenge the person's values, it is blocked and cannot reach the conscious executive pre-frontal lobes. The result may be actions that have no logic, yet comply with that individual's strong belief about himself or herself. That's why values affect willpower and motivation, and it's why educators must involve parents in helping students develop their values and, thus, their motivation and willpower.

Motivating Willpower

Teachers can motivate students to develop positive willpower by providing positive emotional rewards. Offering a positive word or two to a student who has never known anything but kindness and praise may not be as effective as challenging that student to do better. The difficult part is understanding the students well enough to know which rewards to offer. …

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