Can you motivate the unmotivated student?

Michelle Burns
March 23, 2016

metacognition_smRecently, I found a great website for teachers—Cult of Pedagogy (Teacher Nerds, Unite). The site includes blogs and podcasts about teaching issues and resources. While the site is mainly geared toward K-12 teachers, some of the information is helpful for any teacher. On that site I found an article, written by Jennifer Gonzalez, titled “5 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Unmotivated Students” that made me stop and think. It seems that, in almost every class, there are those 1 or 2 students who just don’t seem to be present or interested in the class. And, other teachers may not have the same experience with those same students. It made me wonder what the difference was between the two teachers or classes and I often just chalked it up to subject matter. However, the 5 questions in this post have made me stop and re-evaluate that answer.

The five questions she asks, based on the research include:

  • How’s your relationship with your students, really?
  • How much choice do your students actually have?
  • Are you relying heavily on carrots and sticks …or Jolly Ranchers?
  • Do your words contribute to a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?
  • What are you doing to make your content relevant to students’ lives?

In reading the article, Jennifer  summarized some research about student motivation and found students are motivated most when:

  • They have a positive relationship with their teacher
  • They have choice
  • intrinsic rewards foster creativity and persistence
  • Students believe they can improve in a task
  • Subject has relevance to their lives.

I actually thought I had done well to embrace these concepts in my classes and so had Jennifer. In the article, she goes through each question and looks at one of her unmotivated students to determine how well these motivators were integrated into her teaching.

She invites the reader to do the exercise along with her and it was eye opening.

I thought I did really well at giving students choices by letting them choose a subject for a paper, or a client/condition of their choice to research but the choices were still very circumscribed with limits and rules. They were often having to choose, in their mind, the least offensive option, or the lesser of all evils. In the meantime, in the classroom, the experience was pretty structured and didn’t allow for much choice. Yes, varied experiences were offered throughout the course, but students were either assigned to work in a group or individually, depending on the project. What I realized is they weren’t given a choice. If they preferred to work alone, but were told to work in a group, or vis versa, they didn’t feel supported in an uncomfortable environment. And without an understanding (relevance) for working in a group, it just felt frustrating. Especially if the rest of their group worked differently, or didn’t include them, etc.

I have learned to explain why assignments are set up the way the are, and to not just say what the assignment is, but also what the underlying intent of the assignment is. For instance, they are assigned to teams to research a specific topic and then, as a team, they present their information from the front of the class. They are told this helps them get comfortable talking as an expert to a group of people, such as a brown bag lunch. Later, they will do research on a topic and present individually from the front of the class (graduating from having a team to support them to doing it alone). Once I explained the rationale, they were much less disconnected from the assignment and more motivated to participate.

It has been helpful to review these questions as I review the class syllabus for each new class and see where I can make a difference. It became easy for me to think I was meeting students needs, especially when there was only one or two in a class that just didn't seem to get it, but asking these questions has helped me think about my teaching and that there are always ways I can improve.

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