9.3 Differences in Learning and Motivation

Beyond the extensive list of diversity elements above, as a teacher, one will also be faced with the variations of ways in which students learn, feel about themselves as learners, and are motivated to learn (or not!).  In future courses that you will take to prepare yourself for being the best possible teacher, you will learn much more about these factors, but for our purposes, let’s take a brief look at each of these. 

Learning Styles

Everyone has a way in which they feel that they learn best.  It can be through listening, watching, touching or doing, or a combination of any of them.  This can also affect what tools best help a student in the classroom.  Some will do well just reading the textbook, some may need hands-on experiments, or charts and graphic organizers.  There is no one size fits all approach to learning, which is one of the great challenges that teachers face.  Take a moment and think.  In what way do your learn best?  How do you study?  If you have never taken any kind of learning style test, there are many you can find online for free to take for fun.  There are many different types of learning style approaches.

“Different systems have been used to describe the different ways in which people learn. Some describe the differences between how extroverts (outgoing, gregarious, social people) and introverts (quiet, private, contemplative people) learn. Some divide people into “thinkers” and “feelers.” A popular theory of different learning styles is Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences,” based on eight different types of intelligence:

  1. Verbal (prefers words)
  2. Logical (prefers math and logical problem solving)
  3. Visual (prefers images and spatial relationships)
  4. Kinesthetic (prefers body movements and doing)
  5. Rhythmic (prefers music, rhymes)
  6. Interpersonal (prefers group work)
  7. Intrapersonal (prefers introspection and independence)
  8. Naturalist (prefers nature, natural categories)

The multiple intelligences approach recognizes that different people have different ways, or combinations of ways, of relating to the world.

Another approach to learning styles is called the VARK approach, which focuses on learning through different senses (Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic):

  • Visual learners prefer images, charts, and the like.
  • Aural learners learn better by listening.
  • Reading/writing learners learn better through written language.
  • Kinesthetic learners learn through doing, practicing, and acting.”

Having an understanding that students learn differently and that certain subjects are best taught in varying ways will lead you to seek out many teaching strategies. Having a large toolkit of such strategies will help you to accommodate your students’ needs.  This can also be referred to as differentiated learning or differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction, according to Tomlinson (as cited by Ellis, Gable, Greg & Rock, 2008, p. 32) is the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.”  By the time you are ready to teach, you should be prepared to differentiate your instruction in many ways, which will all be based on your knowledge of your students and how they learn best.



The above is a great representation of how motivation affects learning (by Giulia Forsythe, CC By 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/45033113111

Motivation to learn is very complex, and includes one’s one developmental level, beliefs in the value of learning (in general or something in particular) and the belief in one’s ability to be successful (academic-self-concept comes into play here).  In future classes, you will study educational psychology.  One definition from that discipline for motivation follows.

“Motivation is an internal state that activates, guides and sustains behavior. Educational psychology research on motivation is concerned with the volition or will that students bring to a task, their level of interest and intrinsic motivation, the personally held goals that guide their behavior, and their belief about the causes of their success or failure” (k-12 Academics.com, n.d. retrieved from https://www.k12academics.com/educational-psychology/motivation ).

As a teacher, you are tasked with helping to motivate your students to learn.  As with diversity, it is best to begin by knowing about yourself first.  What motivates you?  What motivated you when you were a student? What did your teachers do to motivate you?  Did it work for you?  Did it work for everyone in your class?

“One of the most difficult aspects of becoming a teacher is learning how to motivate your students. It is also one of the most important. Students who are not motivated will not learn effectively. They won’t retain information; they won’t participate and some of them may even become disruptive. A student may be unmotivated for a variety of reasons: They may feel that they have no interest in the subject, find the teacher’s methods un-engaging or be distracted by external forces. It may even come to light that a student who appeared unmotivated actually has difficulty learning and is need of special attention” (n.d., retrieved from https://teach.com/what/teachers-change-lives/motivating-students/ ).

Students who are highly motivated to learn are what some might call easy to teach, because they want to be there.  They want to learn.  Students who are completely unmotivated can be more difficult to reach.  They may seem like they don’t care. There are many reasons for this, and we will look briefly at these when we discuss social and emotional learning.

Academic Self-Concept


As noted by Wilson, Del Siegle, McCoach, Little and Reis (2014), “Academic self-concept represents how students feel about themselves as learners in school contexts and has implications for both student achievement and well-being” (p. 111).  The authors go on to state that a student’s “academic self-concept informs their perception about not only their current tasks and school-related activities but also their future goals and academics” (p. 111).  In your future practice with students, you will discover that students with strong positive academic self-confidence may be more likely to take on challenging tasks, complete projects, and seem more motivated.  In light of the definition, this would make sense.  If you think you can be successful, you will be more willing to try.  If you think and believe that you will NOT be successful at something, then it would follow that you would be disinclined to try something new or challenging.

Understanding how academic self-confidence affects your students will assist you in developing lessons and procedures that will help them to be successful.  A teacher can have a positive effect on a student’s academic self-confidence.  Pay attention to those students who seem to feel that they can’t do anything well, or that they won’t be successful.  Find opportunities to give them specific positive feedback and support them in areas of weakness.


Children playing

Kids playing with marbles. Photo by Tup Wanders;Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tupwanders/83092660/. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Perhaps you have spent time with a number of infants. How were they alike? How did they differ? Or compare yourself with your siblings or other children you have known well. You may have noticed that some seemed to be in a better mood than others and that some were more sensitive to noise or more easily distracted than others. These differences may be attributed to temperament. Temperament is an inborn quality noticeable soon after birth. According to Chess and Thomas (1996), children vary on 9 dimensions of temperament. These include activity level, regularity (or predictability), sensitivity thresholds, mood, persistence or distractibility, among others. The New York Longitudinal Study was a long-term study of infants on these dimensions which began in the 1950s. Most children do not have their temperament clinically measured, but categories of temperament have been developed and are seen as useful in understanding and working with children. These categories include easy or flexible, slow to warm up or cautious, difficult or feisty, and undifferentiated (or those who can’t easily be categorized). Psyc 200 Lifespan Psychology.


  • Think about your own temperament? How might this affect your teaching style?
  • Where would you place yourself?
  • How does this affect you as a student?
  • How do you manage your temperamental qualities?
  • How might having a variety of temperaments in your classroom affect the learning environment and your ability to teach?

Think about how you might approach each type of child in order to improve your interactions with them. An easy or flexible child will not need much extra attention unless you want to find out whether they are having difficulties that have gone unmentioned. A slow to warm up child may need to be given advance warning if new people or situations are going to be introduced. A difficult or feisty child may need to be given extra time to burn off their energy. A caregiver’s ability to work well and accurately read the child will enjoy a goodness of fit meaning their styles match and communication and interaction can flow. Rather than believing that discipline alone will bring about improvements in children’s behavior, our knowledge of temperament may help a parent, teacher or other gain insight to work more effectively with a child.

Temperament doesn’t change dramatically as we grow up, but we may learn how to work around and manage our temperamental qualities. Temperament may be one of the things about us that stays the same throughout development.