Why Should I Learn This?

A Series on Learner Motivation

(Part 2: Physiological Needs)

The young man on the front row of my lecture was not only nodding off… but snoring. Now this is not the most encouraging scenario for a teacher. I asked the class to discuss a question with each other in pairs, and whilst they did this, I went to the student and released him to go and get some fresh air. Later, I looked for the opportunity to speak with him. Clearly this student did not lack motivation to learn. He had seated himself on the front row. I discovered that he was working night shifts to pay his way through college. His motivation to learn was high, but his basic human need for sleep was simply not being met.

As I delve into this study on what motivates students to learn, I have discovered the place that our ‘needs’ play in the equation. In Abraham Maslow’s “Theory of Human Motivation”, the four lower-order needs must be met before a student can be motivated by the desire for self-actualization. These lower-order needs are:

1) Physiological: food, sleep, water, air, etc.

2) Safety: security of environment, employment, health, resources etc.

3) Belonging: love, friendship, family, intimacy etc.

4) Esteem: confidence, achievement, self-esteem, respect, etc.


Teachers in American schools discovered that many of their students were unable to learn because they were hungry. But… this is America! How could that possibly be a major problem? Yet according to ‘Feeding America’ more than 21 million children qualify for free or reduced price food, providing for their breakfasts and lunches when they go to school. However, the problem still persisted on the weekends, and this gave rise to an initiative called the “BackPack Programme.” See the clip below to discover more about this initiative.

The sleep-deprived student in my lecture needed to have a conversation about how he managed his time. Although for financial reasons, he needed to work night shift, his need for sleep could not be ignored. We discussed how he could find sufficient hours of sleep in his week, by rearranging a few priorities. If I discover my students are hungry, or undernourished because all they can afford is 2-minute noodles, then I connect them to a food bank, and then have discussions about their financial situation to find a healthy way forward. Then there are basic needs in the classroom. Are the students too hot, too cold? Is the room airless?

The question I wish to leave with you today is this. What physiological needs might your students have that are being unmet? What is your educational environment doing to remove this barrier that has the potential to have such a severe impact on the student’s motivation, and ability, to learn?


Learning-Theories.com, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, <http://www.learning-theories.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs.html> Cited 24/6/16.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review,50(4), 370.

Youtube, The Mountain Lion Back Pack Program gives children food on weekends <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZntwOFKkw4> Cited 24//6/16