Identifying Motivation Problems

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Observing Behavior

Whatever the cause of students' motivation problems, they usually manifest themselves in their behavior. The first step, therefore, is to do careful and systematic observations of student behavior.  Although motivation theorists and educators have varying interpretations of these behaviors, and varying beliefs as to which are most important, most would agree that all of them are desirable and their absence, particularly of the first 12, signals a problem.

Teachers should observe all students, including those who are achieving relatively well. And students should be observed working on different subject areas, in a variety of contexts, and on a variety of tasks. Some students work diligently in small groups but never finish tasks that are designed to be done individually. Some students work best in structured learning situations, others in unstructured situations, and so on. These differences will not be identified if students are observed in only one learning context. Analysis of these variations can provide hints about the causes of motivational problems and possible solutions.

It is important to observe students' emotional expressions as well as their behaviors. Do students approach tasks enthusiastically? Do they smile, get excited, even cry out occasionally when a major breakthrough is achieved? Or do they look depressed, bored, or anxious? Do they express pride in their achievements? Do they appear embarrassed or humiliated when they answer a question incorrectly? Emotions are important determinants of behavior and they can reveal a great deal about students' motivation.

From Identifying to Explaining

As essential as careful observations are, they are usually insufficient in diagnosing problems, and need to be supplemented with other strategies. The inadequacy of simply observing behavior is demonstrated in a study by Peterson and Swing (1982), in which some elementary school-age students who looked like they were attending faithfully to a mathematics lesson reported in subsequent interviews that they were actually thinking of other things. They claimed, for example, to be worrying about whether they would be able to solve the problems and whether they would be among the last to finish. Students' responses to questions about their thoughts during the time they were supposed to be working on the task predicted their achievement better than observers' judgments regarding their level of attention. As would be expected, children who claimed they were thinking about strategies to solve the problems performed better than those who claimed to be thinking about whether they could solve them.

This finding should not be surprising. What adult has not been guilty of feigning attention at a teachers' meeting or during a religious service while planning the evening's dinner menu or fantasizing about an upcoming vacation? What college student has not pretended to be taking notes in a lecture while writing a letter to a friend? Adults sometimes have elaborate strategies for looking attentive, and so do children. With a large group of students to observe, it is often difficult for the teacher to see through these ruses.

Teachers can supplement observations with other strategies for identifying and understanding motivational problems. Discussions with individuals or with small groups of students can be revealing if teachers encourage and do not penalize students for honesty and openness. Teachers are often surprised to hear some of their high-performing students claim that they do not like schoolwork and that they work hard only to get good grades. Some poor-achieving students, who teachers assume do not care about academic success, occasionally confess to being discouraged or fearful of failure. Conversations with students can provide other important information that can be used to get them on to a more productive pathway. If discussions don't work well or don't feel comfortable, teachers who are interested in assessing motivation problems can also give questionnaires for students to complete anonymously. Examples of questions that can be asked in discussions or on questionnaires are provided in various chapters throughout this book.

One of the purposes of this book is to help teachers identify and remedy motivational problems stemming from unobservable thoughts and feelings, such as levels of self-confidence, expectations for success, interest in academic work, feelings of autonomy, alienation, achievement anxiety, and fear of failure. Even if motivational problems are apparent from overt behavior, remedies require accurate diagnoses. Strategies for identifying the causes of maladaptive behavior will be described in later chapters to help teachers in this important process.

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