Five Ways You May Be Killing Student Motivation

by Chase Mielke

“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 –

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3 Comments for “Five Ways You May Be Killing Student Motivation”

  1. (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.

  2. 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!:):):)

  3. 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!

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