Anne Marie Conley
“Kids need to want to learn and achieve for themselves. Bribing and awards are not a good idea,” says AnneMarie Conley, assistant professor of education, here reviewing research data with her grad students. Steve Zylius / University Communications

AnneMarie Conley has a message for parents and teachers: Motivating kids with rewards or incentives is not a good idea.

“Motivation is present in most children from birth,” says the assistant professor of education at UC Irvine. “It’s evident in their earliest exploration of the world and their curiosity about their environment.”

Unfortunately, inquisitive babies don’t always become inquisitive students. Once they enter the classroom, many youngsters have trouble seeing how educational content fosters important life skills.

Demonstrating the “real world” value of a lesson – be it arithmetic or essay writing – can encourage students to master, or at least strive to better understand, the subject material.

“They might not be interested in memorizing multiplication tables, but it gives them access to so much more,” says Conley, an educational psychologist. “Math is the foundation of many jobs and careers, and it’s something you need in everyday life.”

Parents and teachers can also work together to ensure that learning happens not just in class but also at home and around the neighborhood.

“Children can pick up a lot by participating in valuable activities, such as gardening, cooking, grocery shopping and visiting museums,” Conley says.

Failure to attend to motivation can thwart even the most promising educational reforms, she notes. Curricula and technology are wasted in the absence of a desire to learn.

Conley, who joined UCI’s faculty in 2007, has received more than $4 million in grants from the National Science Foundation to study motivation in math and science learning as part of the California Motivation Project.

She’s currently researching the effect of teachers’ motivation on student achievement in those subjects with a particular focus on the development of students’ motivation in math and science.

It’s fitting that Conley focuses on motivation as a scholar. The Orange County native acted in films and television commercials as a child to earn money for college.

“I knew by the fourth grade that I was going to get my Ph.D.,” she says.

Her insights on how teachers can nurture learners of diverse ethnic, economic and linguistic backgrounds range from limiting competition – it only works for top students, she says – to eliminating rewards, such as stickers and gold stars for young children.

Similarly, she says, parents should resist the temptation to promise cash or presents for impressive grades.

“Kids need to want to learn and achieve for themselves,” Conley says. “Bribing and awards are not a good idea.”

Academic success is best measured by a student’s improvement over the course of a school year, she adds. The key is that he or she is able to answer the following questions affirmatively: Can I do it? Do I want to?

“Students should believe they have the skills and ability to tackle the material and believe in its intrinsic value,” Conley says. “Without that, they won’t do the work.”