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Despite our best efforts as educators and parents, many students still underperform or struggle academically. Most teachers observe that their students would succeed if only they would invest more effort in their work. In some cases, we see a grave lack of student engagement leading to classroom management challenges, low student achievement, and high drop-out rates.
While some studies cite boredom and disinterest as the cause of these problems, perhaps they are actually symptoms of a broader issue: lack of motivation. Numerous studies have shown that, as student motivation goes up, so do effort and student achievement, in both short and long term situations. In addition, attention, which is a scarce resource in most classrooms, has also been proven to increase with kids’ motivation levels. As we empower students to increase their own ability to focus and apply effort, we witness them becoming better able to process relevant information, which impacts their ability to succeed academically. This, in turn, will set the foundation for an intrinsic love of learning, by teaching students to value their own progress and growth.
Here are three techniques you can use to increase students' motivation:
Does what you think about your ability really matter? If you had asked me that question a few years ago, my response would have been, “No, not really.” But over the past two years, I've changed from the negative, stressed-out, perfectionist teenage girl I was my freshman year to the joyful person I am today. Now, my response is much different.
My team and I worked tirelessly for three days to create an online middle school math lesson that would engage kids and excite them about math. At the end of three days, our lesson would be judged by real live students against lessons created by other teams. When it came time to present our lesson to the kids, we were nervous but excited. We had worked well as a team, really bonded over the past three days, and were proud of what we had created. Ten teams presented their ideas, and they were all fantastic! I felt gratified to work with people who put so much effort into writing creative and engaging online lessons. At the awards ceremony, we were sad to see we hadn't won first place, but still proud of our efforts. We knew we had a lesson that would engage kids in math, and felt we had put our best ideas to good use. Until the next, "surprise" award was announced. You can imagine our shock, dismay, and embarrassment when we heard our group called as winners of "The Worst Idea" award, and were then called to stand in front of our colleagues and accept the award. What an epic failure! How does one recover from such a humiliating setback?
My co- teacher, Courtney Zaleski and I teach an inclusion 7th grade class. In order to set the stage for the year, we teach them that mistakes are not only OK, they are necessary:
Ask an adolescent how they feel about making mistakes and they will be very honest (sometimes brutally so). This year, on the first day of school, we asked our students to write down their thoughts on a post it note and compiled their responses on chart paper titled “making mistakes.” The students are then asked to stay and read their classmates’ comments. Words like “dumb,” “foolish,” “angry,” and “bad” were common responses.
No wonder so many kids don’t take academic risks. Who wants to feel like that?
As the students returned to their seats, we handed them each a personalized envelope. Inside, they found a pink eraser, a pencil with “Think Different” inscribed on it (“Think Different” is our class name), and a Maichin Welcome Back Letter. We asked them to open the envelope and read the letter silently.
A growth mindset about mistakes
We can deepen our own and our students' understanding of mistakes, which are not all created equal, and are not always desirable. After all, our ability to manage and learn from mistakes is not fixed. We can improve it.