Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Complexities of Student Motivation

By Guest Blogger — November 24, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Joining us this week is guest blogger Alex Baron. Alex currently teaches high-school geometry and algebra, while also serving as program director at the Urban Leaders Fellowship. He has previously done research on cultural differences in pedagogy and taught pre-K and kindergarten for KIPP.

At 16, I broke both wrists in a failed attempt to dunk a basketball. Despite shattered pride and bones, I happily avoided my English summer assignment of annotating three books. On the first day of school, I volubly explained the situation as my teacher wordlessly listened. A week later, he returned our grades; out of 50 points, he awarded me zero.

After helping to lift my jaw off the floor, my teacher explained: “You didn’t even try. You could have recorded audio of your annotations; you could have dictated them to a family member; you could have come up with some creative way to show your learning. But you didn’t, so you get a zero.”

After a year of being pushed in his class, I decided that teaching would be the job for me.

Former NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said that good teachers know whether a child needs a push or a hug. For me, the push provided by my English teacher communicated what “trying your best” could actually mean. The gap between my work output and his standards was large, and so was my motivation to cross it.

As a teacher now, though, I am immensely confused about how to best motivate students. I can’t think of many jobs where you directly manage 150 people per day and are expected to get the best out of all of them. Thus, in this final post, I wanted to leave readers with some questions regarding student motivation that I wrestle with every day as a classroom teacher:

  • When a student doesn’t do an assignment, do you allow him or her a second chance? If they still don’t turn it in, do you give a zero?
  • What about when students try their best but still fall short of the expectation? Maybe we won’t give an A for effort, but can we give a B for effort? Or a C?
  • Does giving students passing grades for failing work help or hurt them? If the latter, then does giving failing grades for failing work actually help them either?

When I began teaching, my original inclination was toward strictness—push them until they start pushing themselves. Indeed, pushing students can sometimes provide the necessary jolt to get them moving in the right direction, as it did for 16-year-old-broken-wristed me. However, if the student has some obstacle that is invisible to you, then the push could come at just the wrong moment and sap any motivation that had been there.

By contrast, being too lenient with students involves its own costs. While completing a PhD in child development, I was surprised to learn that overly permissive parenting undermined children’s self-regulation development more than authoritarian parenting. Allowing students to develop in a world without consequences can have, well, consequences.

One example of this leniency is high school graduation rates, which recently hit a record of 81 percent nationwide. Is it the case that students now are more academically proficient than ever? No. We have abundant longitudinal evidence indicating otherwise. While education officials speak to students about soaring levels of rigor, the quality of communication should be judged not by what is said but by what is understood.

In this case, students quickly come to understand that, pass or fail, they will usually be passed onward, which, functionally, means their learning gaps have been passed over. This feels like a disservice to students entrusting us with their education. But failing them out of high school doesn’t seem at all like a great service to them either.

Although I have strong views about the problem, I am really confused about the solution. In my district, students who fail a math class one year sometimes have to take three the next year—the one they failed, the one they were scheduled to take to stay on track for graduation, and an additional math intervention class.

Does it seem right to give a student who hates math three math classes? But if we don’t, then what should we do about their math learning?

Some might say that we can motivate struggling students by making extracurricular activities contingent on academic success. If an ace high-school quarterback is not acing physics, then they can’t keep throwing spirals on the field until they can describe the physics of spirals in science class.

But should we take students away from an area of flourishing to focus them on areas where they feel like failures? This does not feel like it would be productive for their development either.

As the saying goes, students don’t care what you know until they know that you care. But again, how do you best show that you care? What does that actually look like? Although I agree with Van Roekel that good teachers know whether to push or hug, I must say that it is then incredibly hard to be a good teacher (see my first post for more on that).

Of course, students are all different, so we cannot be eager for a simple solution to a complex problem. Borrowing from my second post, I think we will always be somewhat “lost” in the question of student motivation because there cannot be any one right answer. Therefore, it seems that we will simply have to do some thoughtful wandering alongside each new student who comes before us.

A closing thought: This notion of constantly wandering toward educational solutions may feel scary and unsatisfying. However, any deep educational conversation that doesn’t feel boundlessly complex is probably missing the mark. If we want to preserve the amazing diversity of behaviors, learning styles, and personalities with which students come to us, then we must be able to generate a corresponding diversity of educational ideas to offer them. To me, it is both as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Alex Baron

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.