Baseball and Motivation

Robert Harris
Version Date: November 28, 2012

It has been pointed out that students who are bored by school and "unmotivated" in the eyes of the teacher nevertheless find plenty of motivation for playing a sport. The obvious question, then, is, What is motivating about playing a sport? Think about a group of young people in a baseball game. The very things that motivate them to work hard and do well playing baseball can be adapted to the classroom. Let's look at them:

1. Teamwork. Humans are gregarious and like being around each other. Young people and adults usually like working as a team. Yet often the learning activities we assign call for individual effort. Young people especially complain that they don't like doing homework alone, yet we often insist that it be done that way. By designing more team assignments, we can exploit the benefits of teamwork, where the weaker students will learn by having others help. And, of course, since teaching someone something is the best way to learn, the students who teach each other will learn better than if they were learning alone.

Why not let or even encourage your students to do their homework as a group? You will still have measures of individual learning when exam time comes. Moreover, just as playing on a team helps develop accountability in the less effortful and persuasiveness in the more effortful, teamwork in the classroom can be designed so that the students less inclined to work are held accountable by the other team members.

2. Fun. Sports are fun, exciting, sometimes thrilling, highly emotional. Learning experiences should provide as much fun (or at least enjoyment and satisfaction) as possible. We sometimes think that some learning tasks are by necessity boring (like learning definitions, grammar, vocabulary), but perhaps this attitude reflects only a lack of creativity on our part. Americans especially have indulged the myth that work and play are two distinct entities that should never overlap. Work can be fun; it should be fun.

Edutainment and educational gaming are on the rise now exactly because some educators noted the intense engagement of game players, who learn hundreds of complex rules in order to advance their blorg or whatever. Put your creative hat on and devise some ways to make a game out of your content. Use a quiz show format like Jeopardy.

3. Enjoyment of success. Playing a game provides a constant flow of accomplishments and the enjoyment of those accomplishments. Even the team that ultimately loses enjoys, say, a strikeout, a base hit, a well-caught fly ball, and so forth. Teachers should think about this stream of small but constant ego rewards. Breaking learning into small packages that can be conquered and that will in some way produce a feeling of accomplishment and success will help motivate students to go forward, even through very difficult material.

If the noise isn't an issue, encourage classmates to clap and cheer when someone gets a difficult answer right. Or if you divide the class into teams for a competitive quiz, encourage the same kind of applause a base hit would get. If you are in a noise-restricted environment, have the students to mime cheers--physically pretending to clap and shout and wave their arms but not making any noise.

4. Active. A baseball game is not passive the way all too many learning presentations are. It requires both mental and physical activity. Teachers should strive to make learning always at least mentally active and perhaps often physically active as well. The students should be responsible for producing something, rather than just sitting passively, soaking up the lecture. Mental processing is necessary for information to be stored deeply in long-term memory. Physically doing something with information (writing a summary or a question on a 3 by 5 card, for example), contributes to deeper processing.

5. Flexibility and Creativity. Baseball has rules, of course, but there is within those rules a large degree of flexibility, so that a player has a range of choices and strategies for accomplishing a given goal. In education, it has been found that students learn better when the directions given them have a similar flexibility so that they can put some of their own creativity--some of themselves--into the assignment. The freedom to follow hints, suggestions, and their own inclination will produce a greater desire to perform and a better long-term learning experience.

6. Tangible Thinking. The game connects thought with the tangible in that every decision is worked out physically and its result is seen in three dimensions. This kind of connection is the best there can be for learning and remembering, as well as for providing fun. Teachers should therefore attempt to connect ideas, concepts, conclusions, and so forth with physical reality, whether as effects and consequences or in a symbolic way.

Bring objects to class that will make or illustrate a point you want to convey. Call up students to stand before the class and give them roles or use them as examples of something. Connect ideas to pictures or to visual images in the imagination (that is, use concrete analogies whenever possible).

7. Outside the Classroom. It has been said that most learning takes place outside the classroom. It's important, then, for the teacher to prime students to continue learning after class, to prepare them to be aware, to ask them to apply concepts in their lives after they leave class, to shape their out of class learning experiences through hints, suggestions, assignments.

Some professors have a small shelf of favorite books they encourage students to borrow and read. Some suggest practical applications or experiments for students to perform after class. ("Tonight at dinner, ask your meal partners how they would define 'need' and compare it with the definition we've developed in class." or "As you watch TV this weekend, look for the techniques of emotional manipulation the advertisers are practicing.") 

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com