“What are your thoughts on student motivation?” my principal recently asked. Knowing that I have an interest in motivation, as well as a love of working with at-risk students, he wanted to know my thoughts on why our achievement gap wasn’t narrowing.
As a teacher, I of course had many thoughts. But, the many thoughts I have on student motivation are just that: my thoughts. And, ultimately, the thoughts that matter most are the students’. So, rather than dive into a discourse of which I was not the best source, I asked my principal a simple question: Why don’t we ask the students?
So, we did.
We sat down with my group of at-risk sophomores – a large majority of whom were in our bottom 30% academically. The stage was set for these students to be completely open and honest; nothing they shared would have a negative influence on their experience in school. They were given a few days to think about factors that affect their motivation in school.
What we had intended to be a quick conversation sparked a deep discussion consuming the whole 70 minute period. Out of the whole conversation, many themes arose – themes worth sharing to a larger community because change begins with understanding.
1. Grading pitfalls
For a struggling student, falling into a pit with a low-grade – without systems to recover – is a recipe for learned helplessness. Many students remarked how frustrating it was to struggle in a class and reach a point where their effort wouldn’t matter.
The most common motivation killers were:
A) Heavily weighted assessments
We all know that not all students who show understanding of content and work hard on assignments, only to bomb tests because of cognitive challenges, stress, or any other host of “test-taking factors.” More than a few students said things like, “I hate how I can be doing well on all my assignments and projects, then fail a test, and all of a sudden I’m failing the class.”
B) No opportunities to revise or re-submit
Surprisingly, students weren’t griping for those finals week extra credit chances to inflate grades at the end. They wanted chances to revise tests, essays, and assignments throughout a class. They wanted chances to turn things in late – even with penalties.
My realization here was how much grading practices can contribute to learned helplessness. It makes sense: If I don’t feel like my effort will be enough to help me pull myself out of a failure pit, then what’s the point? As a teacher, then, I must consider what opportunities I can provide – such as revision opportunities – that shift students back into an internal locus of control.
Students talked often about how often their teachers talk. Despite an educational culture that is putting the focus on students doing the work of learning, many students discussed teachers who talk the entire class period. They stressed how hard it is to stay motivated when they just sit and listen. One of the most common suggestions students gave for helping motivation was hands-on opportunities. They even acknowledged that not every lesson can involve a lab or project. But, they said they’d at least like to be able to talk and share their ideas or practice on their own more often.
Stephen King once received great feedback from an editor who rejected one of his early writings. The editor said, “2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.” What if we approached our lectures similarly? “What I say = What I want to say – 10%” Even a 10% shift towards student response opportunities could be a great start to keeping brains active and motivated.
3. Poor explanations
We pressed students often to focus on solutions rather than gripe about specific teachers. In doing so, we realized another theme: Students lose motivation when they don’t understand.
Seems like a no-brainer. But, the learning here is that teachers aren’t intentionally trying to destroy student understanding. Just the opposite was true: Teachers were trying to help students “get-it,” but the understanding was lost in translation. Among the most common comments were:
“I hate when I ask teachers to explain something again and they say, ‘Weren’t you paying attention!?’ They assume I was being lazy but I really was trying. It just didn’t make sense.”
“I can’t stand when I say something doesn’t make sense and the teacher explains it exactly the same way they did the first time. After they keep doing that, I don’t even bother asking.”
I’m a huge fan of John Hattie’s work, in particular his urging teachers to get more feedback from students and to be conscious of knowledge gaps. My learning is to a) ask for feedback more regularly on my ability to explain concepts and b) ask students what they do understand before trying to re-teach – next time in a different way.
Relevance, relevance, relevance. A major factor in student amotivation was feeling like the content was either not useful or too challenging. This is nothing new to teachers: We all have students who ask, “What’s the point of this.” Yet, the answer we give is important. Students commented that “You’ll need this for your next class/college” is more annoying than helpful. They want relevance now as well as in the future. They want it to be relevant to their lives not relevant to our lives.
In addition to the relevance concern is the scaffolding concern. As an ELA teacher, I asked my class what percentage of the content we read is interesting to them. The average? 10%. I then followed up asking what percentage of the content we read was too difficult to understand independently. The average here? 15% Imagine the effect on motivation when the content is both dreadfully boring and dreadfully challenging.
I need to ask some tough questions about my content. Yes, there are things beyond my control that I must teach, but I must look at what I can control and work from there. For example, it’s easy to get frustrated and angry when kids don’t come in the next day having completed their reading homework. But, do I really expect them to trudge through something that is boring and beyond their ability at home? Can I do a better job of coaching their reading in class and/or finding resources that are more relevant? Yes.
5. Lack of respect and lack of joy
This was THE most discussed topic that hurt student motivation. Over and over students described how much a respectful classroom environment affected their willingness to work hard and learn. The frustration could be summed up in one students’ statement: “They expect us to act like adults but treat us like children.”
My biggest shock came from a survey my principal gave the class. He asked two questions:
– Of the teachers you’ve had in this school, what percentage do you think like their job?
– Of the teachers you’ve had in this school, what percentage do you think like kids?
The average of both answers? 10%
To any teacher, these answers would be frustrating. We could point to any number of justifications for why students might feel this way, such as, “Kids today think they deserve respect rather than having to earn it first.” As I’ve heard before, though, blaming and justifying are like rocking chairs: They give us something to do, but don’t get us anywhere.
So what do we do? I again return to the value of surveying student perceptions often, getting consistent, honest feedback. Just as no quality teacher is intentionally trying to teach content poorly, no quality teacher is trying to disrespect students. There is simply a miscommunication.
At the end of our discussion, I had more questions than answers. There were still so many things I wanted to know about each student’s motivation. But, to get there, the process of understanding has
1. Ask for truth
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” – Gloria Steinem
2. Improve my teaching accordingly
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley
“If [a method] fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” – F.D.R.
What action steps will you be taking this coming year to create more motivating contexts for your students?
This post originally appeared on WeAreTeachers.com. If you haven’t checked out this great site for teachers, do so now!