Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Good News & Bad News’ About Student Motivation

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 20, 2013 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the second post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

Fitta Astriyani asked:

How can I deal with unmotivated students? I’m a little bit frustrated when I know my students don’t do their homework and sometimes they talk during my lessons.

Part One of this series included responses from Cris Tovani, Josh Stumpenhorst and Eric Jensen. Next week’s post will include more guest responses, as well as comments from readers.

Today’s post features another “all-star” line-up of guests: Maurice J. Elias, Stevi Quate and Cindi Rigsbee.

Before we get to them, though, I wanted to share share chart I created with Google’s Ngram Viewer. It lets you analyze over 500 billion words published over the last 500 years (you can read more about it here). I used it to compare the number of times “intrinsic motivation” and “extrinsic motivation” had been used:

Clearly, much more has been written about intrinsic motivation than extrinsic motivation over the past thirty years. Yet, as the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race To The Top, and the continued push for teacher merit pay based on student test scores all show, extrinsic continues to rule in the real world of education policy.

I wonder if that same disconnect holds true to how teachers operate in their classrooms. Do most of us continue to lead with extrinsic motivation? What do you think?

Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University where he also directs the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. He is the author of the new e-book, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting and a book for young children, Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. You can read his blog on social-emotional and character development at Edutopia:

I believe it is most productive to reframe the question. It’s the same as trying to figure out how to deal with students who don’t think. Thinking and motivation are integral to human life. There are no unmotivated students. There are, however, students who are not motivated to do what you want them to do. So that leads us to ask two questions:

1) When are “unmotivated” students motivated during the school day?

2) What might be the reasons why students are reluctant/resistant to engage in the tasks we want them to do?

From the answers to #1, we can learn much. Where students are motivated, show a spark, are most animated, gives us a clue about the conditions under which they can be productive and engaged. Consider different times of day, different individuals with whom they interact (staff and students). Gender is sometimes an issue. What are the actual tasks they seem to be relatively more motivated to do? What are the common or core features of those tasks?

The answers to #2 usually reveal something about a students’ multiple intelligences strengths and weaknesses. We all have our preferred modalities, and the work of Howard Gardner and Thomas Armstrong has many practical suggestions and guidelines for finding out whether students may be lacking in verbal-linguistic facility but better in art or music. Often, the way to motivate students is to frame tasks or part of their tasks in terms of their strengths. We have asked students to draw about the topic of an essay before writing about it, for example, and we have found that it produces better written results when students first get to work in an area of strength.

You will also find that failure cycles breed low motivation to engage in tasks where failure or embarrassment is expected. So the way around this is to provide natural pathways to get help and support so that the stigma of being helped is reduced. Early or mid-task check ins with peers or teachers is an example of creating a normative structure for getting help before a project gets overwhelming. Sometimes students don’t know how to plan out projects and they quickly become too daunting to even start. Having step-by-step project planning can help with some of this.

Finally, students often lose motivation because they don’t feel their voice or ideas matter. Two ways to address this are to give students choice about some aspect of assignments or projects, such as how to present what they have learned, the timetable for task completion, or whether they work alone or with others. Choice often builds motivation. The second way is to create an audience. When students only feel that their audience is the teacher, it is easier for them to slack off than if they know that the product of what they do will be presented to other classes, on the Internet, to parents, to community members, in a newsletter, or posted prominently in the school on a certain day. Disappointing and/or looking bad in front of an audience can overcome many hesitations and of course, once students succeed and get reinforced for their effort, a positive motivational cycle can ensue.

Response From Stevi Quate

Stevi Quate, along with John McDermott, are the authors of two books on motivation and engagement: Clock Watchers and The Just Right Challenge. As former teachers, both Stevi and John have thought long and hard about these issues and continued this focus when they worked at the university level supporting teachers new to the profession. For four years, Stevi was Colorado’s literacy coordinator and saw the impact in schools across the state when teachers worried more about state assessment results than with how to engage students in meaningful learning:

As they say, good news and bad news.

The good news: a teacher can shape a classroom culture that has a high chance of motivating students.

The bad news: there is no magic bullet.

And more bad news: the lack of motivation has multiple causes and manifestations. One student John McDermott and I studied in The Just-Right Challenge was off the charts bright and keenly motivated to learn except when it came to school. He gave all the outward appearances of being engaged, but that flow that Csikszentmihalyi writes about evaded him unless he was studying music theory which is how he spent evenings and weekends. And then we studied another young man who struggled academically up until his sophomore year. That year his father was diagnosed with brain cancer, and the student just stopped trying. Quietly, he faded into the background, totally zoned out, totally disengaged.

Back to the good news. A teacher ferociously committed to students’ potential could have shifted both young men’s lack of motivation. Teachers who we studied in The Just-Right Challenge did exactly that. Because of their stance, they broke through barriers time and time again to make a difference in students’ investment in learning, and it wasn’t with cutesy activities. It was intentionally shaping the classroom culture in a way that we describe in Clock Watchers:

1) A caring classroom community where teachers know students well and students know each other well.

2) Choice in order to respectfully provide autonomy and ownership.

3) Checking in/Checking out - or assessing students in a way that makes a difference where students check in with teachers about their academic needs and teachers check out their learning in order to offer specific, timely, relevant feedback.

4) Collaboration that results in students doing the work, not passively watching someone else.

5) Celebration of effort, strengths, and successes.

6) Challenge, the linchpin for motivation and engagement. Too much challenge and students become literal or figurative dropouts. Yet too little challenge and students are likely to be bored or apathetic.

Along with creating this classroom culture, a teacher must give students work that matters, work that is relevant and transformative.

And is it do-able? Oh, yes, a teacher with a stance that is ferociously committed to students’ potential won’t shrug off students’ lack of motivation by saying, “Oh, well, it’s his choice.” Instead the teacher will do what one student said: “That teacher will hound me until I get my work done. No one has cared enough about me to do that.”

And that’s the good news.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified Teacher currently serving as a Regional Education Facilitator in North Carolina and working on recruitment and retention initiatives. A finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009, Cindi is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make:

I have only found one way to motivate my most apathetic students, and that’s with a purposefully developed relationship. It starts with my First Day of School Motivational Dream Speech and continues day-by-day as I get to know each student and allow them to really know me. I practice humanist Carl Rogers idea of “unconditional positive regard” - every student is valued and accepted. My classroom is a safe place to learn, and I tell my students that.

I have taught some students who came to me from deplorable situations so I’ve had to get very creative when it comes to motivation. Most of this “creativity” involves extra time or money on my part, but in the end it’s worth it as I realize students want to do their work for me or try really hard to behave appropriately.

I had one class of boys who would do anything for a sausage biscuit! A box of these at a local fast food restaurant only costs 50 cents per biscuit! So about once a month, I’d say, “If all of your work is turned in by...., we’ll have biscuits!” I’ve also planned reward field trips to the mall and to local college football games. But for the most part, establishing a close relationship with a child is all that is needed; I only use my money and my weekend days/nights when “desperate times call for desperate measures!”

Thanks to Maurice, Stevi and Cindi for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, the last post in this series will include many reader suggestions.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for the final post on this topic in a few days...

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.