21 August 2010

Motivating Low-Performers

As I was reading Chapter 4 of Mark Forget's "MAX Teaching with Reading and Writing," I found a quote that talks about the difference between students who are motivated by success versus those who are motivated to avoid failure.

"Students whose focus is on striving for success derive emotional rewards from eagerly taking on new and challenging tasks.

On the other hand, Students whose focus in on avoidance of failure are often behaving in response to a lifetime of failures in the task."

Forget goes on to talk about what the manifestation of the later might look like and how to deal with those manifestations. The rest is interesting, but I was really struck by the idea that there are students who are more focused on not failing, rather than being successful. I guess maybe I realized this somewhere inside my mind, but I never really physically had the thought (are thoughts physical?) Anyway, this may help me to see many of my students, especially those who have not developed a love for science (yet).

I am already thinking of several students, (yes, I'm profiling based on appearance and class choice) many whose names I don't even know yet, who fall into the category of "likely low-performers". I'm going to have to think differently now about students who may act out in class or feign fatigue when they are in my classroom. Maybe they aren't just trying to be lazy or obtuse. Maybe they are simply not being successful and really want to divert my attention away from that fact.

I was just talking with my English teacher wife about this group of students this morning. My view of learning is getting a taste of teaching adults (which I love, by the way) and its changing the way I think about my own classroom. I realize that adult and adolescent learners are quite different, but honestly, there's not that much difference between thought processes when it comes to the adult learners and my physics students, at least. That said, Michelle and I discussed the idea that maybe I should do a small social/educational experiment in my class.

I polled students in all of my classes as to whether or not they would like to be treated like an adult and got a resounding "yes" from 100% of those polled. I gladly agreed to treat them as adults, as long as they continue to act like adults. Michelle suggested that maybe I talk about how being in class is analogous to having a job and install myself in a "supervisory role", since "boss" can have such a negative connotation. I hope to make some connections between being successful in class and being successful at work. There may be several of these students who already have a job and can actually learn (if I make the connection) how to be a good employee.Additionally, there are many of these students who are going to go directly from high school right into the workplace, so a little vocational skill training is a great thing.

The take-away thought from this quote for me is to recognize that many student are at different levels of motivation and are motivated by different situations and factors. Its my job as their "learning facilitator" to help them be motivated to be successful in my class. My measure of their success? If a student is able to do their best in class and do that most of the time, I think they are successful.

Do you have students in your class who are simply motivated not to fail?

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