What Kills Student Motivation? We Asked Them.

“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.


 

So what?

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.


 

2. Lecturing

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.


So what?

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.”


So what?

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.


4. Content

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.


So what?

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%


So what?

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

3. Repeat

“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!

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17 Comments Add yours

  1. AthenaC says:

    Re: #3 – Being able to explain effectively really is a gift. In my experience, there are a lot of very knowledgeable people that forgot what it was like to not know what they know, and so they have a hard time bridging that frame-of-reference gap with a student.

    I think becoming a better explainer starts with understanding that the frame-of-reference gap exists and thinking to yourself, “What understanding am I assuming with this explanation? How do I drill down further and help my student understand an even more foundational concept?”

    #5: “They expect us to act like adults but treat us like children.” That’s a really widespread problem in how we treat teens in general, but that’s a broader rant for another day. What this means as a teacher is that you may have a bit of an uphill battle if the students begin with negative expectations (although hopefully not). But I do know from experience training people in a professional setting that if you treat people like they have valid questions and concerns they will absolutely flourish and work really hard for you.

    Really great thoughts!

    1. tvdch says:

      I have done a poor job of explaining often, but I believe that some of my illustrations by drama, construction, mnemonic or memory device, or some other catchy idea has sometimes really helped or even done the trick! It takes work for me to explain correctly. It is worth the study!:):):)

  2. Michael G. says:

    Great post on a crucial issue effecting students! Thanks!

  3. lmitat says:

    Interesting read!!!

  4. lmitat says:

    Reblogged this on Never a dull moment: The Life of a Full-time Mommy and Teacher and commented:
    interesting reading about student motivation…

  5. Reblogged this on The Secret Diary of J. Alfred Prufrock and commented:
    Must share with my teachers

  6. enricouva says:

    (1)”They wanted chances to turn things in late – even with penalties”. …It’s a strategy that I use and it works well. Sometimes students think adults are out to get them. With a small penalty, punctuality is still encouraged but not above everything else, and students appreciate that.

    (2) “They want relevance now as well as in the future.” Good teaching has always sought a balance between the two. But it’s no guarantee to get motivation to rise from the ashes. Basically what is most relevant to most teenagers is relationships, fear of not being accepted, especially by members of the desired sex, and the weapons of mass-media aimed at them. That’s why our subjects seem dull to them, even if we’re doing our best.

  7. Len says:

    These are good but ignore some very important elements for successful learning for at-risk youth. A teacher’s classroom cannot and should not be an island in a school. There needs to be a supportive school culture that strives to meet the needs of teachers and the needs of students. Disciple policies should be set by the school and maintained strictly. Teachers should have the possibility to remove disruptive students for the benefit of the others and schools should provide assistance (counseling, extra tutoring and academic support) to those who need it. Without these things I think it’s unfair and frankly naive to suggest that if teachers follow these prescriptions they’ll be more successful with at-risk students. I write this from my experience teaching in Philadelphia…

    No matter how much you try to be “relevant,” “engaging” and “student centered” if there is no structure in place to support you, you’re likely to burn out trying to “meet the students where they are.” In this article the students interviewed sound like angels (and victims of shitty pedagogy) but in real life there are attitudes, habits, behaviors that are super detrimental to classroom learning and very difficult to alter… This is why the role of the whole school in developing norms is imperative.

  8. Len says:

    These are good but ignore some very important elements for successful learning for at-risk youth. A teacher’s classroom cannot and should not be an island in a school. There needs to be a supportive school culture that strives to meet the needs of teachers and the needs of students. Disciple policies should be set by the school and maintained strictly. Teachers should have the possibility to remove disruptive students for the benefit of the others and schools should provide assistance (counseling, extra tutoring and academic support) to those who need it. Without these things I think it’s unfair and frankly naive to suggest that if teachers follow these prescriptions they’ll be more successful with at-risk students. I write this from my experience teaching in Philadelphia…

    No matter how much you try to be “relevant,” “engaging” and “student centered” if there is no structure in place to support you, you’re likely to burn out trying to “meet the students where they are.” In this article the students interviewed sound like angels (and victims of shitty pedagogy) but in real life there are attitudes, habits, behaviors that are super detrimental to classroom learning and very difficult to alter… This is why the role of the whole school in developing norms is imperative.

  9. Harold Losey says:

    Many of these things that MAY motivate the students are really nice and may work to get them through school and have a diploma “given” to them BUT do they prepare the student for what will happen in real life? How many college professors will accept work late? How many bosses will allow an employee multiple tries at correcting their work? If your mechanic takes multiple visits attempting to repair your car do you keep them? Perhaps the problem lies in a society where to much is given and not earned.

  10. LZH says:

    Reblogged this on TechCentral.

  11. Scott Jones says:

    I wish you were awake to talk to me

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