The Motivation Secret

Now, here’s the motivational secret I spoke about earlier. In a prison setting, concrete rewards are really not allowed. But I have learned rewards and punishment can lessen the chance of self-motivation, and appreciation of learning is its own reward!

 Setting goals and having control over them is an alternative to using rewards! It increases the student’s self-motivation. If a classroom offers choices in learning that demonstrate mutual respect, it is a supportive learning environment for the students, and they are more likely to self-motivate. In the long range scheme of things, isn’t that what we ultimately want for our students? Ironically, in an environment where I can offer little or no rewards, my students can learn to motivate themselves which is inherently a much more desired trait than reacting to any outside rewards or punishments. 

To further support the success of my students, I help them develop planning calendars, set goals for their work, and establish criteria for quality. They learn to pick dates for goals and monitor their progress along the way. And then, together, we make changes in their plans whenever it is deemed necessary. We tweak and discuss their plan whenever we meet. There are certain things they know they must do. There is no option as to what they have to learn, but there may be options as to how they learn it.

We practice the art of mastery learning. Sometimes my students have a little difficulty with grading their own work, because in their mind they think it is cheating. So, I take time and explain there is another way to learn.  When they have completed a couple of questions, if they are not sure, they can look them up, stop before they make a lot of mistakes, and fix them before they go any further. Then, they can use me as a resource if they don’t understand what they are doing wrong.

It does take patience and some time, but the system is all in place. I have tutors who set up a lot of this for the students in advance, because we know when they are coming in as new class members.

If doing all of this produces more GED graduates at a quicker pace, then I have accomplished my goal. The bonus is it helps to self-motivate. I don’t have to worry so much about always pumping them up and telling them how great they are. Don’t get me wrong.  I compliment them as much as possible.  I have a personal goal to say something nice to each student at least once a day. There is great value in that. But I can’t give them M&M’s, or a little cookie, or a free pencil, or any kind of concrete reward. So, my system is a more practical and effective replacement.

Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at .