Motivational Scaffolds

Model-based inquiry (MBI) varies dramatically from lecture and lab formats that are common in many classrooms. For many students, this form of instruction is far more challenging and demanding. Developing models, analyzing evidence, evaluating and arguing about models are not trivial tasks, and they require substantial and persistent cognitive effort on behalf of the students. Students’ ability to stick with it depends to a large extent on their motivation and interest. In this section we discuss a handful of strategies for fostering and maintaining motivation. We divide these into two categories: strategies that primarily operate at the student (and class) level, and strategies that primarily operate at the teacher level. Of course there is substantial overlap here, and the student-focused strategies are obviously mediated by teacher moves and the structure of instructional tasks.

Our motivational scaffolds build on work by Belland, Kim, & Hannafit (2013), Rogat, Linnenbrink-Garcia, & Didonato (2013; Rogat et al., 2014), and by many other scholars of motivation.

Example materials

Anchoring instruction in phenomena that are likely to be interesting and puzzling to students helps promote relevance.

Strategies at the student level

Promoting autonomy

Having a sense of control and choice is critical for both maintaining interest and for feeling efficacious and successful. There are many ways to provide students with autonomy over their work, ideas, and participation. MBI is actually very conducive to giving students autonomy because at its core is the premise that in order to learn one must construct one’s own understandings. We cannot implant knowledge into students’ minds; they must construct these understandings for themselves. The core tasks of MBI are entirely aligned with this premise: developing models, collecting and interpreting evidence, and evaluating models. Students have control and choice in how they develop their models and in how they argue for their models (or for a model of their choice). When students collect data, they also have some autonomy in how they go about designing the experiment, as well as what and how they choose to measure or observe.

There are also other more subtle opportunities to provide students with some autonomy even when they are not collecting data or developing their own models. For example, in the PRACCIS instructional materials, students can provide a rating of the quality of evidence pieces; thus they have a choice over how valid and reliable they judge the evidence to be. Students also have a choice in denoting how each piece of evidence relates to each of the alternative models. Even simple choices like the order in which students view a set of 5-6 pieces of evidence can promote some degree of autonomy. Therefore, there a variety of ways in which students can be made to feel more in control of their own learning and thus more motivated to put effort into their participation and classwork.

Promoting relevance

Science has so much potential for being meaningful and relevant to students’ lives, both in terms of content and the skills that are addressed science. There are many ways to make the utility of science knowledge and practices visible to students. We list a few below:

  • Provide students with opportunities to engage with current socioscientific issues and evaluate relevant evidence and arguing about their position on these issues. These contexts also provide excellent opportunities to show students that not all evidence is created equal and that they need to be critical of claims based on poor quality evidence.
  • Anchor instruction in phenomena that are likely to be interesting and puzzling to students. In our PRACCIS materials we have used a variety of phenomena such as resistance to HIV and pesticide tolerant bed bugs to contextualize our genetics and evolution units respectively. There truly is a plethora of fascinating phenomena that can be used to teach any core idea in science.
  • Help students see that the skills of evaluating competing claims and engaging in evidence-based argument can be useful in domains other than science. Even common personal decisions such what constitutes a healthy diet and what kinds of exercise routines are effective involve evaluating competing claims and evidence from a variety of sources.

Promoting community

Scientists develop knowledge (theories and models) in the context of a community of peers who play a major role in evaluating claims, evidence and arguments. The scientific community is central to ensuring progress. The science in the classroom should also function as a knowledge building community with students both contributing knowledge and critiquing it in order to arrive at the best explanation/s as a whole class. Participating in a community and being valued as community member can provide strong motivation for students to expand effort and persist in their learning. Creating and supporting a functioning knowledge-building community with effective collaboration among students is not trivial. Some scaffolds for collaborative interaction in MDI are on our "Collaboration Scaffolds" page.

Promoting mastery goals and a growth mindset

Scientific inquiry is challenging, it often involves dead ends and failure and it requires substantial and consistent effort. To make inquiry work in the classroom we need to help students develop a mastery orientation to learning rather than a focus on performance and what others think about our abilities. It is important for students to develop a growth mindset, to understand that they are in control of their own learning and that, with effort and support, they can achieve. Promoting a growth mindset in the classroom does not happen overnight, however, there are curricular programs, such as Brainology, designed to foster a growth mindset.

Strategies at the teacher level

Achievable goals

Inquiry-based instruction often extends over long periods of time (units can last 8-9 weeks) and involves many different types of tasks and requisite skills that learners need to develop. It is not realistic to expect students t master all these diverse skills from the start. Therefore, it is important to help students master these skills incrementally over time. This is not to say that students need to master one skill at a time. Rather, students can learn multiple skills at the same time and their competencies at these skills will develop gradually and simultaneously. A useful strategy to support such incremental, yet consistent, growth is to set specific and achievable goals over short time spans (for every lesson or set of lessons). For example, during group work tell the students that today you want to hear them to “ask for reasons” when they discuss their argument for a particular model. As you walk around during group work pay attention to how groups engage in the goal set for the day. At the end of the lesson tell them what you noticed, the good and the not-so-good and set goals for moving forward further. It is important to take small steps and to commend students on their achievements along the way.

Targeted praise

Related to setting specific and achievable goals is the importance of giving specific praise. Students often do not see their own improvement, especially since they are constantly being asked to master additional new goals. In order to maintain motivation and a sense of self efficacy it is necessary to help students recognize their achievements in tangible ways. Rather than praising students for generally working well with evidence providing a more specific and targeted praise, such as “I saw many of you really trying hard to understand the evidence today, you did a good job and I am proud of you” is more effective in maintaining both progress and motivation.

Constructive feedback

Effective feedback has three key components:

  1. it highlights what students are doing that is good,
  2. it highlight where they fall short of the expectation (and explicitly articulates the expectation),
  3. it provides specific strategies that the student can use to improve.

All three components are necessary here. Obviously, providing such feedback is both effort and time consuming. Therefore, we argue that it is better to provide better feedback on fewer assignments, rather than less effective feedback on a large number of assignments.

Earlier we noted the importance of fostering a growth mindset and a focus on effort (process not just product). However, effort alone is not enough. To be successful students need to place their efforts on the right track and they need feedback to help them stay on this track. Thus growth mindset, effort, and feedback work together to yield productive progress and the motivation to keep moving forward even in the face of challenge and failure.