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.

High Achievers Are Not Invulnerable

Teachers usually recognize the motivational problems of relatively low achievers. In contrast, motivation problems of high-achieving students like Sally, who are not realizing their potential for intellectual development, often go unrecognized. This is because teachers usually assume that students who do well in school do not have motivation problems. They rate students like Sally high in motivation and most of them enjoy having students like her in their class.

Studies of student motivation challenge this assumption. Phillips (1984), for example, studied 117 fifth graders who were above the 75th national percentile on the Stanford Research Associates (SRA) achievement tests. Twenty-three of these students seriously underestimated their actual levels of performance, set low achievement standards for themselves, and were less persistent than the high achievers in the sample who had high perceptions of competence. By setting low standards and by giving up easily, these high-ability students were not living up to their learning potential. (See also Kolb & Jussim, 1994; Phillips & Zimmerman, 1990.)

Research suggests that high-achieving girls and minority students are particularly vulnerable to motivational problems. In the Phillips study, for example, girls composed 66 percent of the students studied, but 100 percent of those who underestimated their competency. Steele's (1999) research on "stereotype threat" indicates that high achieving minority students often become so concerned about avoiding the stereotype of intellectual inferiority that they fall apart in situations in which they are asked to demonstrate their competency, such as on standardized tests.

It is easy to overlook relatively high-achieving students who are not performing at their capacity. Teachers who have as many as 25 or even 35 students in a class generally believe that their primary responsibility is to make sure that all students master the basic curriculum. As long as students consistently finish their work and are not disruptive they are usually not considered to pose problems. That some students finish assignments in half of the allotted time often goes unnoticed. This is especially true in classes in which there are many students who are having difficulty mastering the assigned material and who lay significant claims on the teachers' attention. Consequently, the "B+" student who could be getting "A's," and the student who gets " A's" without really trying are less likely to be noticed or to be perceived as problems than those students who are barely passing. Their talents are, as a consequence, not developed, and some become bored and disinterested. It is, therefore, important to scrutinize all students for motivational problems.

Looking Beyond the Student

What are seen as students' motivation problems are often problems with the academic context. If more than a few children seem unmotivated to complete school tasks, it is useful to examine aspects of the educational program and the social context of the classroom that might undermine motivation. Student motivation is strongly affected by the nature of instruction and the tasks given-for example, whether tasks are clear and at the appropriate level of difficulty, and whether they involve active participation and are personally meaningful. Students' motivation is also affected by the social context—for example, whether students feel valued as human beings, are supported in their learning efforts by the teacher and their peers, and whether they are allowed to make mistakes without being humiliated. Motivation problems that are observed in students' behaviors, therefore, often actually reside in the educational program.

Often an analysis of the fit between the student and the instructional program is required to understand motivation problems. This is because a program that is highly motivating for one student is not necessarily effective for another. For example, a student like Safe Sally, who is used to working for grades, may not work at all in a classroom in which grades are not given, at least not initially. A student like Satisfied Santos, who is motivated to do only the work he chooses, may work effectively in a classroom that allows a great deal of choice and autonomy, but not in a classroom that is very teacher-directed. Identifying motivation "problems," therefore, requires a complex analysis of students, the educational context, and the interaction between the qualities of students and contexts.

Grade Differences in Motivational Problems

Underachievement in the early elementary grades (i.e., kindergarten and first grade) usually has different causes than it does in later grades. Some young children do not work effectively on school tasks because they are having difficulty adapting to the demands of a new social context. Young children usually have not had experience in formal academic settings. Some have difficulty sitting still for more than a few minutes. They may also be easily distracted because they are not accustomed to the stimulation of many other children and activities. Sometimes young children, who are used to being able to choose their activities, are unenthusiastic about accepting constraints that the teacher imposes.

Although some children in kindergarten and first grade have difficulty following directions and completing tasks, most are eager and self-confident learners (although not necessarily on the tasks the teacher provides). Helpless Hannahs, Defensive Daves, Anxious Almas, and Alienated Als are rare in the early elementary grades. Indeed, most young children have unrealistically high expectations about their ability to complete tasks (see Stipek, 1984a, 1984b; Stipek & Greene, 2001; Stipek & Tannatt, 1984).

By second or third grade some students lose self-confidence, become anxious in learning contexts, and consequently engage in activities that inhibit rather than facilitate learning. Thus, although the kinds of adjustment problems experienced by very young children usually disappear with time and experience in a school setting, other problems emerge.

The older the child, the more serious the consequences of motivation problems. During their first 6 to 9 years of school, students have little choice in their educational curriculum. Because there are not many tasks they can avoid, children's motivational problems often appear in the form of low effort expenditure, poor attention, or disruptive behavior. High school students have more choice in the type and difficulty level of the courses they take, and even in how long they continue their education. Older students, like Sally, can avoid certain courses, or like AI, school itself. Thus, while the fifth grader who lacks self-confidence in mathematics may "forget" to do her homework, the older student may not take any courses in mathematics or more seriously, drop out of school.

Although the immediate consequences of motivational problems in the early grades of school may be less serious than those occuring in later grades, children's early experiences in school put them on a pathway that becomes increasingly difficult to change. Children's school performance as early as in kindergarten is highly predictive of their performance much later (Alvidrez & Weinstein, 1999; Luster & McAdoo, 1996; Stipek, 2001) and an accurate predictor of dropping out is failure in elementary school (Garnier, Stein, & Jacobs, 1997; Luster & McAdoo, 1996; Stipek, 2001). Motivational orientations that develop early in life no doubt play a role in this predictability. Indeed, some analysts consider low perceptions of competence resulting from early failure in school to be a major cause of dropping out of high school (Stipek, 2001). Achievement motivation, even in the first few years of school, therefore, has serious and life-long implications.


Careful observation of students' behavior is a critical first step in enhancing student motivation in achievement contexts. Thorough observations in variable contexts, supplemented with interviews and analyses of the educational program, are necessary to identify and understand motivation problems.

Psychological theories provide a coherent set of constructs and principles that can guide this analysis. Theories provide a framework for understanding, predicting, and changing behavior in achievement contexts. They also provide a framework for conducting research that will produce useful information about practices that promote student motivation.