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Honest Teacher: Understanding Motivation to Get Results

Honest Teacher Peter Bui logo

This sponsored column is written by Peter Bui, founder of The Honest Teacher. An Arlington native and former teacher, Peter offers private tutoring services that focus on the individual needs of students and emphasize the core values of confidence, independence and resilience.

According to Dr. BJ Fogg of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, there are three core motivators: sensation, anticipation and belonging. Each motivator has two sides: pleasure/pain, hope/fear, and acceptance/rejection. What is more intriguing and insightful about Fogg’s approach to motivation are his challenges to the current paradigm of motivation.

In his lecture, which can be found in the link above, he corrects “motivate behavior change” to “facilitate behavior change.” A subtle yet dramatic difference in interpretation. Trying to motivate someone to change their behavior is often quite difficult. It requires a constant injection of one of the core motivators. However, if behavior change is truly the goal rather than a change in motivation, facilitating the behavior change by utilizing, as Fogg states, the “current motivation” is much more effective at long-term change.

Motivation comes in waves rather than always being high. Although there are individuals who are always highly motivated, most people typically reside in the low areas of motivation with peaks of high motivation. These areas still allow for behavior change but only the easiest kind, such as tasks that require very low ability or effort. Social media has both a low level of ability and provides belonging, a core motivator. It becomes clear based on Fogg’s framework why so many people choose to use it when they are bored or have low motivation. So how do we harness these natural waves of motivation to produce positive behavioral change?

At times of low motivation, structured behavior, tiny habits and baby steps are still possible. Structured behavior is behavior that is daily and routine. School provides a great deal of structure for students but can vary from class to class, which then takes longer for some students to build the feeling of routine. Habits and routine take time to build and also require occasional reinforcement.

Tiny habits require trusting that they will grow naturally into larger habits. A tiny habit can be as simple as “flossing one tooth” which then grows into “flossing all your teeth.” Starting just one homework assignment when a student comes home could grow into completing all the assignments.

Baby steps are important for providing effective, long-term change. Making a commitment like running every day is a daunting goal, but making it into walking outside once a day will have a longer lasting effect and result. Reading notes for the most difficult class is a baby step towards consistent study habits, which can lead to focusing more in class due to the lowered need for ability or effort in order to comprehend the new concept.

At natural high points of motivation, reducing barriers to behavior is the most versatile tactic. After a good day of school, try getting all the homework in a pile or maybe just having a tiny habit like quiet time. When these natural high points occur is still unknown, but as students develop their own routine, taking advantage of these high points can provide a great deal of change.

The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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