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Why Students Are (and Aren't) Motivated in School

Why Students Are (and Aren't) Motivated in School

Dr. Rebecca Branstetter

My dissertation was on adolescent motivation for school, and it has been read and enjoyed by ones of people. I was told when I graduated from UC Berkeley that every time someone downloaded my dissertation, I would get $1 in royalties. I have, to date, received $1. (1)

Because I am feeling generous today, I will give you the results for free, in one sentence. I will spare you the 118 beautiful pages of pure data and analysis that has riveted one reader to date. (1) Guess what?

Adolescents with positive relationships with their parents have better grades regardless if they are Mexican-American or White. (2)

Someone please, ALERT THE MEDIA about this.

I’m allowed to put the “dis” in my dissertation, because enough time has passed that I won’t take it personally that it could have been published in the Journal of Duh. But what I will say is that the results do influence my beliefs about my students. Sometimes, we think of adolescents as more influenced by their peers, but I’m here to tell you that even your most snarly disgruntled moody teen still wants his or her parents’ approval. I do this activity with adolescents where I give them a survey of things that might motivate them to do well in school. I swear, the number one “reward” or “motivator” they pick, no matter what age they are, is a positive call home to parents.

I know! So cheap! So easy! Why don’t we educators do this more often? It makes the kid feel good, and if you can manage to block the school’s number (so the parent picks up), and you can manage not to get hung up on when you say, “This is so-and-so from your son’s school…” (because they think their kid did something bad), it really works. Go on, give it a whirl this week.

And if you need more ideas for what makes a kid tick, try my fancy, non-researched-based, but helpful, Adolescent Motivation Survey with a kid and see how it goes.

Student:
Date:

Different students like different things. As your teacher/counselor, I hope to get to know you individually. This survey will help me understand what you like and don’t like about school, so I can work with you/your teachers to make school more enjoyable for you. There are no right or wrong answers, just complete the sentences with your ideas

1. In my free time, I like to….
2. If I had $5, I would buy…
3. The thing I like most about school is…
4. The thing I do not like about school is…
5. When my teachers pay attention to me…
6. When my classmates pay attention to me…
7. When I am frustrated, I like when teachers…
8. My favorite subject is…
9. My least favorite subject is…
10. I wish my teachers knew that…
11. After I finish my work, I like to…
12. When my teachers call my parents…
13. When I don’t want to do something in class, I…
14. You can tell when something is too hard for me because…
15. The behavior I am working on as a part of my IEP is…
16. The rewards I would like to earn are…

You might just be surprised at what you find. Last time I gave this, the kid had a Behavior Plan where the reward for doing his work was “praise from teacher” and he wrote “When my teachers pay attention to me….I hate it because my friends think I’m a teacher’s pet.” Not so rewarding. I guess it’s like giving black licorice as an incentive for increasing class participation. (3) It could work for some people, some might find it absolutely vile and repugnant and not know why someone would think that nasty stuff would be consumable or desirable and thus would never raise their hand to participate. I think you know which category I’m in. Bleh.

(1) Thanks, Dad.
(2) My dissertation committee argued for a long time what to call the White kids. White? Euro-American? Caucasian? I didn’t care. Call my people “Pigment Challenged” for all I care, just sign off on the thing so I can graduate already. (3) NFTSP does not endorse candy motivators. Except when they really work.

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