Tag Archives: Motivating Underachievers

Focus on 6 High-Impact Motivation Strategies

Teachers struggle to reach seemingly unmotivated students. It is true that the degree to which students are “self motivated” is a key factor of student academic success, and it is probably true that we cannot actually motivate students. This is the old idea that we can lead a horse to water, but we cannot make him drink.

The idea falls flat, however, when it is accompanied with the assumption that there is nothing teachers can do to help students be more self-motivated. This is compounded by the fact that teachers too often try low-impact or no-impact motivation strategies thinking they will help (probably because they are used so often and seem to have legitimacy, even if they don’t work well). These low-impact/no-impact motivators include grades, detentions for not doing homework, bribery rewards, showing enthusiasm, being nice to students, or statements like “you’re going to need this in high school (or college, or work, etc),” or “it’s going to be on the state test.” 

The good news is that there are, in fact, at least 6 high-impact strategies for creating the conditions for student to be self motivated. This is the idea that we may not be able to make a horse drink, but we can certainly salt his oats.

6 High-Impact Motivation StrategiesOne approach to creating the conditions for student self motivation are the 6 Meaningful Engaged Learning Focus Strategies which grew out of me dissertation so long ago. Schools working to improve student motivation, engagement, and achievement concentrate on balancing six focus areas:

  • Inviting Schools
  • Learning by Doing
  • Higher Order Thinking
  • Student Voice & Choice
  • Real World Connections
  • Continuous Improvement

Here’s a brief overview of each strategy.

Inviting Schools: Sometimes, it may seem like this one has little to do with academics or engaging students in learning, but positive relationships and a warm, inviting school climate are perhaps the single most important element to implement if you are working to reach hard to teach students. I have heard over and over again from the students I have worked with that they won’t learn from a teacher who doesn’t like them (and it doesn’t take much for a student to think the teacher doesn’t like her!). It’s important for everyone in the school to think about how to connect with students and how to create a positive climate and an emotionally and physically safe environment. Adult enthusiasm and humor go a long way, and teachers are well served to remember that one “ah-shucks!” often wipes out a thousand “at-a-boys!”

Learning by Doing: When you realize that people learn naturally from the life they experience every day, it won’t surprise you that the brain is set up to learn better through real experiences, in other words, active, hands-on endeavors. Many students request less bookwork and more hands-on activities. The students I studied were more willing to do bookwork if there was a project or activity as part of the lesson. Building models and displays, field trips and fieldwork, hands-on experiments, and craft activities are all strategies that help students learn.

Higher Order Thinking: It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on memorizing facts actually makes it hard for students to recall the information later. That’s because the brain isn’t accustomed to learning facts out of context. Higher order thinking (e.g. applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, within the New Bloom’s Taxonomy) requires that learners make connections between new concepts, skills, and knowledge and previous concepts, skills, and knowledge. These connections are critical for building deep understanding and for facilitating recall and transfer, especially to new contexts. Remembering things is important and a significant goal of education, but remembering is the product of higher order thinking, not the other way around. Involving students in comparing and contrasting, drama, and using metaphors and examples are strategies to move quickly into higher order thinking.

Student Voice & Choice: Few people like being told what to do, but in reality, we all have things we have to do that may not be interesting to us or that we would not choose to do on our own. Nowhere is this truer than for children in school. So, how can we entice people to do these things? We often resort to rewards or punishments when we don’t know what else to do, but other blog posts discuss just how counterproductive and highly ineffective they are. Instead, provide students voice and choice. Let them decide how they will do those things. This doesn’t mean allowing students to do whatever they want, but it means giving them choices Let students design learning activities, select resources, plan approaches to units, provide feedback about how the course is going, and make decisions about their learning.

Continuous Improvement: Continuous Improvement takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers, who will place emphasis on assessing frequently, providing timely formative feedback, coaching, motivating and nudging, and monitoring of progress. Learners need to know what they are aiming at (clear picture of the learning target), and to see fairly immediately how they did with meeting the target. They can gather the feedback themselves, or a guide or coach can provide the feedback (or both). But that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible, and needs to be detailed enough to lead to improved performance. Learners need the opportunity to make corrections on their next turn (and, therefore, need opportunities for next turns!), and the next turn needs to be soon after the current turn. This isn’t about letting students just try and try and try until they get it. To focus on “re-do’s” is to focus on the wrong part. It is about strategically leveraging the clear target and the detailed feedback to improve performance.

Real World Connections: This focus area is often a missing motivator for students. Schools have long had the bad habit of teaching content out of context. Unfortunately, this approach produces isolated islands of learning, and often makes it easy to recall information learned only when they are in that particular classroom, at that time of day; they are not as able to apply the information in day-to-day life. When learning is done in context, people can much more easily recall and apply knowledge in new situations (transfer). Making real world connections isn’t telling students how the content they are studying is used in the “outside world.” It’s about students using the knowledge in the authentic ways people use the knowledge outside of school. Effective strategies include finding community connections, giving students real work to do, and finding authentic audiences for work (think project-based, problem-based, and challenge-based learning).

These six focus areas aren’t new material; they are a synthesis of what we’ve known about good learning for a long time. The model is comprehensive, developed from education research, learning theories, teaching craft, and the voices of underachieving students.

But it is important to keep in mind that students need some critical mass of these strategies to be motivated. Teachers sometimes get discouraged when they introduce a single strategy and it doesn’t seem to impact their students’ motivation. The trick then isn’t to give up, but rather to introduce more of the strategies.

 

Classroom Management is the Opposite of Motivation and Engagement

Recently, I attended a conference where table talks were a part of the lunch program. There were 12 or 13 topics, and we chose which table/topic we wanted to sit in on. Who ever was at the table collaboratively guided the personalized conversation on that topic. Twenty minutes later, a timekeeper let us know it was time to go to the next table of our choice.

During one of the rounds, I floated over to the Motivating Students table. This is clearly one of my favorite topics.

But very quickly, the teachers and school leaders at the table started talking about which classroom management strategies they use when students are not motivated. The talk focused on punishments and rewards.

And I started to panic, because I really wanted to get the conversation back onto motivation and engagement (and I know how counterproductive punishments and rewards actually are to learning!). How could I do that without offending these educators who were clearly struggling with what to do to motivate disengaged learners…

And finally I found a diplomatic way to redirect the conversation: “I find that when I'm doing a class activity that the students are really into and engaged, I really don't have any classroom management issues.” Everyone nodded that they had the same experiences. “So what do those activities look like? What is it about those activities that seems to engage the students?” And “boom” the conversation was focused on what motivates students.

But it was also in that moment that I realized for the first time that classroom management wasn't a sister skill set to motivation and engagement. It was the direct opposite of motivation and engagement.

Classroom management is what we do when our kids aren't motivated and engaged.

And, for the most part, we don't need to worry about classroom management when they are engaged.

Yes, orderliness helps students learn. And let's see if we can encourage and support our teachers in focusing more on proactive motivation and engagement, so they can focus less on reactive classroom management.

 

Teaching with Engaging Tasks

Engaging Tasks are an easy-to-implement, real world learning strategy that, when implemented well, many students find very motivating.  An Engaging Task tells a little story (only a paragraph or so!) that gives the students a reason for doing the work.
 
 

Sometimes Humor is the Best Way to Correct Behavior

So, one of your hard to teach student has just acted up in class again. Or maybe he isn't acting out, but just won't do the assignment or get into the lesson.

What do you do?

You've got to do something fast, before that student's behavior starts affecting the rest of the class…

Just as helping students save face can be a powerful tool in reaching hard to teach students, so is the use of humor. Several of the students in the underachievers study said they preferred teachers who used humor. Humor builds and preserves relationships. In fact, I often find that humor works better than many other strategies, especially when trying to correct student behavior.

I had a student named James, who was the kind of student who was always inappropriate, but in funny ways, and I was always trying to get the class back on task after his antics while trying not to laugh uproariously! I really enjoyed him and I wished I didn’t have to teach the whole class while he was there! I just wished I could have him one on one and help him learn whatever I could, and then deal with the rest of the class separately.

I prayed for those days James was absent. But, of course, he never was.

One day James was driving me crazy and I finally had to send him out in the hall. I followed him out, wondering what I could possibly say to James that he had not heard a thousand times before. He got dressed down in the hall regularly: I’d be walking in the hall, and there would be James with another teacher, and I would say to myself, “Oops! He did it again!” Clearly the traditional scolding wasn’t changing James’ behavior.

I had to think about what my goal was. Was it to punish and chastise James for being a pain (which clearly had a track record of not working)? Or was it to get him to settle down so I could teach the class?

Out in the hall, I closed the door and maneuvered so that James’s back was to the door, so I could see the class through the narrow window. I wasn’t sure how to get what I needed, but, on a whim, decided to try humor. My intuitive response to James was, “Do you want to play a trick on the rest of the class?”

This was not what he was expecting, and, although he wasn't really sure where this was going, said he would, albeit a bit hesitantly.

I whispered, “I’m going to start yelling and screaming at you about your behavior and I want you to throw yourself up against the door.” Given his facial expression, he was now a willing coconspirator, without reservation!

As I yelled, “James, I’ve had enough of you!!!” he’d throw himself against the door. Boom!!! Boom!!

Then I'd yell, “I’m trying to teach the whole class and I can’t do that while you’re in there fooling around!!!” Boom!!! Boom!! Boom!

And this continued for a couple more rounds.

Well, he was the consummate actor and kept up the show as we returned to the room, staggering, like he’d taken an awful beating! Hamming it up all the way. I just went in with a straight face and went right back to teaching as if nothing had ever happened. The whole class was on its best behavior, playing along, seeing the whole event as the hoax it was, but now playing the properly cowed students!

This approach was a bit of a risk, and it only worked because I knew James and my other students well (and they knew me). I knew what was likely to work with James and what wasn't; there were certainly other students that I would never dream of doing something like this with.

But it did seem to be exactly the right move with James. The change in him was great, at least for a couple weeks (Only a couple of weeks!?, you say… What was the last intervention you did with a hard to teach student that lasted more than 5 minutes, let alone a couple of weeks!?!). I had to hardly speak to James about his behavior at all. We’d just see each other and laugh. But I got want I wanted: James to be settled enough that I could teach the class. As his old ways started to creep back into class, I would look at him sternly and ask, “Do you want more of the same!?” and he'd laugh and playfully protest, “No! No!” and he'd settle down for a couple more days.

Since then, I've figured it works out better for me (and the whole class) if I do whatever I need to to get the behavior I want (from any student, not just James), even if it doesn’t include punishment. There’s no doubt James knew what was right and what was wrong. There is no doubt that James' behavior warranted punishment or a scolding. There’s no doubt that James knew that he was disrupting the class. But it turned out I didn’t need to yell, or scold, or punish him. Besides! None of those worked when other teachers did them!

What I got was something much more useful: we ended up being allies.

By using humor, I could work much better with James (and much more importantly, James would work with me!). Over time, I got much more of the behavior I wanted from James! And this lesson helped me get much more of the behavior I wanted from my other hard to teach students, too.

 

The Importance of Helping Students Save Face

Are your hard to teach and underachieving students friendly and kind? Easy to get along with?

Or are they often the students that drive your blood pressure up and tax your patience?

If your experience is like mine, I'm guessing many are in this second group. Getting frustrated with their behavior and performance is an understandable and logical reaction. And speaking to them sharply is often a very human and logical response to their behavior.

But I had an enlightening experience with Josh, one of my challenging students, that helped me rethink things some…

Josh was the kind of student it seemed I had to talk to every five minutes. One day, when I had finally had enough with Josh, I took him out into the hall to talk to him. When I asked him what was up, he responded, “You don’t like me!”

I was really surprised by his statement and asked him what he meant by that. I said, “I live near you and! when I’m out for my walks, we stop and talk. I tease you, which I only do with students I like. I always ask you how you’re doing and I’m interested in what you do. What do you mean I don’t like you?”

Josh said, “You yelled at me in front of the class.”

Now, Josh's actions had warranted a sharp response, he had been disruptive and out of line. But clearly such a response did not lead to Josh settling down. It had not helped me be more successful with Josh.

And suddenly I realized it wasn't about what Josh deserved for his actions (to be chastised or punished), but rather, about what would get me the results I desired (Josh settling down so I could teach the whole class).

I realized that working with Josh (and probably other hard to teach students) would require more psychology than it would require logic.

I started by reminding Josh, “You know, I need you to behave so I can teach all thirty kids in the class. When I’m talking to you every five minutes, I really can’t teach the other twenty-nine.” He had certainly heard this frequently from his other teachers.

But then I said something that really surprised him, “So, what do you need from me so you can do that?”

It was clear that, although he had had more than his share of dressings down, he wasn't used to being asked about his needs. When his jaw came up from off the ground, he said that all he needs is not to feel that I hate him. So success would depend on my not reacting sharply to Josh, especially in front of his classmates.

Josh had taught me about the effectiveness of allowing students to save face.

I have a friend in Louisiana who likes to remind me that one “aw shucks” wipes out a thousand “atta boys.” It doesn’t matter how many times we handle situations delicately with a student, the one time we are sharp with him in front of everyone else, we negate all of our past (positive) history.

Perhaps more than with any other group of students we work with, having a safe and respectful atmosphere is critical both to helping hard to teach students learn and to helping them behave in class. Whenever we are working to correct student behavior, the importance of relationship and having the right kind of environment become even more important (and we certainly seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the behavior of hard to teach students!).

Josh and I made an agreement that when Josh got to be “high energy,” I would come over next to his desk and discretely say, “Josh, do you remember what we talked about?” It was private and personal. No one else knew what we were talking about and, when done in an upbeat tone, didn’t even sound like I was admonishing him.

When we implemented the plan, I would just say it in a positive way, and he would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” (with a smile) and settle down. I had to do that every once in a while, but he was much better at monitoring his own behavior. It even began to feel like we were working together on it, not against each other. Occasionally we would have to go back out into the hall, but it wasn’t all that often, certainly not daily or every five minutes like it used to be. It made a huge difference in my ability to work with the whole class and with Josh feeling safe and comfortable.

All because I found a way to let him save face. All because he taught me the importance of letting students save face.

 

Kindling Fires of Curiosity

“A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.” (Plutarch)

I am a Mainer who has lived in several homes heated by wood stoves, and have done living history, and have gone camping, so I am no stranger to trying to build fires.

Therefore, it won’t surprise you that my connection to this metaphor is deep.

Most folks know you can’t start a fire just by simply piling up logs and holding a match to them. What a lot of people don’t know is that that method doesn’t even work all that well when lighter fluid is applied (there is usually a short-lived flame that goes out without creating a sustainable fire – and you never want to use accelerant in an enclosed wood stove!)

Fire starters know that building fires is a two stage process: first you have to get the fire going, then you can feed the fire. Both have their own set of strategies. I think when most folks think of having a fire, they think mostly of the second phase and a lot less of the first. Further, I think most folks can feed a fire; it’s just a matter of not adding too much wood too soon (or things get too hot), not letting the coals burn too low (or there arent enough coals to keep the fire going), and adding wood in a way that allows a little air to circulate (or, again, the fresh logs won’t ignite). Even with these caveats, the strategies are fairly forgiving and it isn’t too hard to keep the fire going.

On the other hand, starting a fire isn’t particularly difficult, but it does take a little more strategy. And if you aren’t experienced with fire, these strategies may not be as obvious as those for keeping the fire going.

A good fire starts with some kindling (a variety of small sticks and pieces of dry wood that catch relatively quickly, but will burn long enough to catch the larger sticks and logs that will be added soon) and some tinder (such as newspaper, shavings, twigs, or dry grass) that will catch easily with a match and burn long enough to ignite the kindling.

Even with these components, you aren’t guaranteed a fire; they need to be used properly. The kindling should be stacked in one of a couple of ways: often with smaller kindling and newspaper organized in the center of larger kindling in a “log cabin” or “teepee” configuration. When you light the newspaper, it catches the small kindling, which in turn helps the larger pieces catch. Then, once those get going, you can (carefully) put on the first logs.

You don’t have to use much more strategy than that if the fire catches quickly and cleanly. But what if it doesn’t? Have you ever been camping and tried to light a campfire with damp wood? Or maybe you got the small kindling going, but the larger sticks weren’t catching well? What do you do? How do you get that fire going?

Do you take another match and hold it under the part of the log that isn’t burning?

Of course not! (And, yet, how often do we try that!?)

Instead, you blow where the wood is already burning. Or you add a little more kindling where it is burning. You can’t get your fire lit by attending to the part that isn’t burning. You get it burning by nurturing the fire that is already started and let it spread to the rest. In fact, paying attention to the part not burning will often let what little fire there is go out, leaving you with no fire at all…

Ok. Ok. I feel some of you getting noodgy, wanting to talk about the “logs.” (and yes, at this point, we’re starting to mix metaphors…) Are the logs seasoned (dry?) or are they still moist with sap or wet from a drenching? Sure, most folks can make a fire with well seasoned logs without really trying, but talking about unseasoned logs sounds a little like an argument about why you shouldn’t have to make a fire because some of the wood isn’t dry. I’ll even concede that there are probably some logs that can’t burn, no matter what. But those are few and far between, and should never be used as an excuse to avoid making a fire with less than perfect logs.

In truth, experienced fire builders can start a fire with the wood they have.

The fire building strategies above work well with both dry and damp logs. Whether you get a good fire raging or not probably has more to do with your kindling and tender, or how you nurture the fire, than it does with the logs themselves.

So perhaps, we just need to understand how fires ignite, catch, and burn :

  • Have we thought about what kindling and tinder we will use?
  • Which technique will we apply to the kindling and tinder?
  • How will we nurture the fire as we add the first logs?
  • How will we attend to damp and unseasoned wood to get it burning well?
  • How will we blow on the flames that are already burning, rather than hold a match under the unlit portion?
  • How will we monitor the fire and know just the right time to add to it so it doesn’t burn too hot or burn down and go out?

If teachers are fire builders, perhaps their primary job isn’t to give students information, but rather to inspire and nurture them as they work on their own learning. Sometimes when we are teaching hard to teach students we forget about their interests (don’t blow on the flames) or about making it interesting (adding a little more kindling to the flames) and instead keep plowing along through the curriculum (holding a match to an unlit log). Perhaps, we need to focus on how to use kindling and care to make them burn brightly.

In fact, Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don’t need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”

Personal aside: This saying has spoken to me since early in my teaching career, and has certainly shaped my growth as an educator and my work with schools to reach all children. It probably even played some direct role in focusing my dissertation research on motivating underachieving students and in starting the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning.

At the very least, it has said something to me about changing my assumptions about what it was to teach. And when I think about schools serving all the children of all the people, and about easy-to-teach students and hard-to-teach students, and about students at various levels of engagement, I think we probably need to challenge our assumptions.

How might the fire building metaphor help you think about reaching your students or having conversations with your colleagues about reaching students?

Student Motivation: What Level of Engagement Are Your Students At?

I’ve worked a lot with schools wanting to motivate students, and we have largely focused on the “how.” In this work, I have named the conditions necessary for students to be motivated (as have others, such as here). My list includes student voice and choice, higher order thinking, inviting schools, learning by doing, and real world connections.

But wouldn’t it also be helpful to think in some productive way about how motivated students are?

Thinking of kids as simply being motivated or not is not all that helpful. In my work, I’ve often asked that students be thought of as “easy to teach” or “hard to teach,” and although this framework is helpful for certain conversations with educators, this isn’t really the same construct as how motivated or engaged students are.

My friends at the Great Schools Partnership have defined engagement in their iWalkThrough tool as the percent of students that are on task during the classroom observation. Again, although perhaps a useful operationalization of “engagement” for a walk through protocol, I’m not sure this is really the same construct as student motivation and engagement…

But I think I have finally found that useful, practical way of thinking about how motivated students are. I recently learned of Phil Schlechty’s five patterns of engagement, described here:

Authentic Engagement. The student associates the task with a result or product that has meaning and value for the student, such as reading a book on a topic of personal interest or to get information needed to solve a problem the student is actively trying to solve.

Ritual Engagement. The task has little inherent or direct value to the student, but the student associates it with outcomes or results that do have value, as when a student reads a book in order to pass a test.

Passive Compliance. The task is done to avoid negative consequences, although the student sees little meaning or value in the tasks themselves.

Retreatism. The student is disengaged from the tasks and does not attempt to comply with the demands of the task, but does not try to disrupt the work or substitute other activities for it.

Rebellion. The student refuses to do the task, tries to disrupt the work, or attempts to substitute other tasks to which he or she is committed in lieu of those assigned by the teacher.

These certainly aren’t the kinds of classifications that a visitor could observe on a walk through, but I believe any teacher could place each of their own students into these categories.

Here are a couple of things I really like about having this framework:

  • It differentiates students’ levels of motivation well beyond “he’s motivated or he’s not.”
  • It provides a framework for educators discussing how motivated their students are.
  • These might even be interpreted as levels and a thoughtful educator mighty work to move students from one level to the next.
  • It helps teachers differentiate their strategies for motivating students (moving them to a “higher” level) based on what category the student falls in.
  • It helps answer the question of why we (educators) might still have work to do, even when students do well on tests or are getting good grades (they could still be in the Ritual Engagement or Passive Compliant categories).

How might this framework enhance and extend your conversations with educators about student motivation?