“What can we do to motivate our students who need it the most?” my principal recently asked. Because I am fascinated with motivation, because I love 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 majority of whom are in the bottom 3 percent of the class academically. The stage was set for these students to be completely open and honest; nothing they shared would have a negative influence on our treatment or evaluation of them. 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. The most common motivation killers according to the students are:
- Bombing a Big Test
We all know that there are students who show an 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.”
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 efforts wouldn’t matter.
- No Opportunities to Revise
Surprisingly, students weren’t griping for those final-week extra-credit chances to inflate grades. They wanted chances to revise tests, essays and assignments throughout a class. They wanted chances to turn things in late—even with penalties. In short, they simply wanted a chance.
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.
- Too Much 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. They said they’d at least like to be able to talk and share their ideas or practice on their own more often.
- Poor Understanding
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. One common comment was:
“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.”
- Boring Content
Relevance, relevance, relevance. A major factor in student motivation 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 English teacher, I asked my class what percentage of the content we read is interesting to them. The average? 10 percent. I then followed up asking what percentage of the content we read was too difficult to understand independently. The average here? 85 percent. Imagine the effect on motivation when the content is both dreadfully boring and dreadfully challenging.
The lesson? 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.
- Lack of Respect for Kids
This was the most discussed topic that hurt student motivation. Over and over, students described how much a respectful environment affected their willingness to work hard and learn. The frustration could be summed up in one student’s statement:
“They expect us to act like adults but treat us like children.”
Now, I take pride in working with amazing teachers. So 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 likes their job?
Of the teachers you’ve had in this school, what percentage do you think likes kids?
The average of both answers: 10 percent.
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.” So what do we do? I again return to the value of surveying student perceptions often and 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, there were still so many things I wanted to know about each student’s motivation. This coming school year, I commit myself to:
- Ask for truth, often
- Improve my teaching accordingly
So, what can you do this year to learn the truth from your students?