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Motivation: Encouraging Reluctant Students

I taught middle school for thirteen years before moving full-time to the upper school here. In that time, I noticed that interest would ebb among students and reach what I thought was an all-time low in eighth grade. This was in part caused by a new-found awareness of freedom: the boys had the choice about what homework they would do, what readings they would do, what notes they would take. The motivation had to become their own, and many would choose to take a pass. 

In the high school, I had only taught an elective for a decade. In that class, it was easy enough to use the first month to gauge a student’s work ethic and abilities and help him make a call about keeping or dropping the class.

Not so in a required upper-school class, and made worse when a vocal minority of the students see the class as useless (e.g., Latin). So, as I enter the classroom each year, I do so with a strong purpose of first uniting my students around a shared goal and then motivating them to reach that goal. In so doing, I’ve picked up various tools and rules along the way for motivating students in the courses they have to take, but so often don’t want to. 

Fogg’s Formula

First, I borrow a framework from B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits. In the book, Fogg provides a formula to represent Behavior. While no abstraction is perfect, this helps to highlight the component parts of our behavior. He claims B = MAP, where Behavior consists of Motivation * Ability * Prompt. Fogg emphasizes that motivation is the most fickle of the three, since it often correlates to things like blood sugar, how we slept the night before, and other background stressors. The upshot is to control for the other two: Ability and Prompt. His solutions are to make the habit you’d like to accomplish concrete, easy, and tied to something you already do. 

 A concrete habit is one which is well-defined, specific, and finite. If we make our concrete habit easy, it means that Ability can never stand in the way again: anyone can floss one tooth or do one pushup. Tying it to behaviors we already do is a Prompt; it allows us to stack habits successfully and prevents us from forgetting as often. If I put the floss in the shower, I know when I’ll be in the shower and I’ll see my prompt to remember my habit. If I write something in dry-erase marker on the bathroom mirror (a prayer I’m memorizing or a reminder to do one push-up), I know when I’ll be in front of my mirror. Showing up becomes the only half of the battle I have to worry about. 

While this framework helped me as a Mentor, and in setting goals for my own life, there remains the problem that motivation can be so fickle. In B = MAP, a Motivation of zero can still control the whole equation. How do we recover motivation — or find it in the first place? 

Levels of Motivation

First it’d be best to understand where we find our motivations in the first place. I’d rank them into two major places, internal and external. Obviously, the internal are more natural and the external more contrived, but we’ll see that all four can be used for our benefit.

Internal Motivations

So, when we make a goal and are inspired (however temporarily) to pursue that goal, we have the highest motivation: inherent motivation. While this might be the most obvious to us, it’s also the most mysterious in a way. Why were you originally attracted to chess? Why did you want to be a Boy Scout, despite not knowing any? Intrinsic motivation bubbles up from hidden springs deep within, but we can’t question its sources and must enjoy that it pushes us towards goals, however obscure or odd. 

The next level down is another we’re familiar with: inspired motivation. We all can remember the teacher who opened up the subject we knew nothing about before. For me, it was my history and literature teachers. The classical way of looking at inspired motivation involves admiring the messenger so much that his message gains traction with you. This argument from character — Aristotle called it ēthos — is still the reason marketers use celebrity endorsements: they work. 

External Motivations

After intrinsic and inspired motivation, we have to try a bit harder, and this is where contrived motivation comes in. Contrived motivation has a bit of a negative gloss to it, since it can feel, well… contrived. But fear not, because employed subtly or consistently enough, contrived motivation just looks for everyone to get some “skin in the game.” 

Games are often like this in the classroom. One colleague of mine here at The Heights might play kickball with the students if there’s too much energy in the room. But, for a run to count, they have to answer a question about Latin (or in Latin). It’s contrived, but it works! Most games fall into the contrived category: Jeopardy, Pictionary, or Hangman. 

When I pass out personal whiteboards or force a student to catch a stuffed animal before he can speak, I’ve also introduced contrived motivations. They’re small and simple but often quite effective. Bringing in any element of competition could also feel forced but often brings more engagement than when a teacher asks a question just to hear crickets. 

The lowest rung on the ladder of motivation is likely the one we use most often: compulsion. Generally, these can be as explicit as threats or as subtle as the carrot and stick — incentives and constraints — already built into the system. This form of motivation gives the strongest incentive to our students just to go through the motions. I am not arguing that we rid ourselves of all compelled motivation; rather we need to see that, as motivation, it fails. When we cease to see grades as a motivator and can help our students and their parents see the same lesson, we have built a foundation on which we can construct the other motivations into our classroom. 

Grades can and do act as external motivation, but they are best seen as a tool facilitating communication among parents, teachers, and students. Hopefully these fall more towards the side of the contrived: symbolic of a boy’s mastery of a discipline (and ultimately himself). But explained poorly, grades and punishments can seem to the boy to be compulsion: do this or else it will prevent you from accomplishing anything in the future! 

The Rest of the Formula

So, back to Fogg’s Formula: B = MAP.

We can strengthen Ability and Prompts with concrete, easy tasks tied to established habits.  Teachers should be clear with their assignments and attentive to the abilities of their students. Assigning too much reading has the same effect as not assigning reading at all: the students don’t read. As people, we like to do what we can do. 

I often tell a story of my first few runs down a ski-slope when I was sixteen. The first time I moved from the bunny slopes to the blue squares, it seemed so precipitous. Who skis down cliffs? It felt even more precipitous as I tumbled over the snow, my skis falling off and beating me down the slope by several minutes. The embarrassing march down to collect my things led me to one clear conclusion: I don’t like being bad at skiing. Though I persisted and improved, I noticed once I started to teach that many of my students don’t like a subject because they don’t like being bad at it! Really, it’s just that we all hate falling down mountains.

This anecdote helps to distinguish for a student that he should clarify what he dislikes. This should be our line of questioning when a student boldly concludes that he hates a given class. Before we ask whether or not it’s the teacher, textbook, or presentation-style, we should diagnose how far along he is in the subject. Does he dislike the discomfort of learning something new and foreign? Does he dislike feeling the clumsiness of the beginner? If so, these conversations can go a long way to convincing a student to push through to the next level. A student will only believe this story, though, if he believes I want to see him succeed.

So, contrary to Fogg’s claim that Motivation is too temperamental to tackle, I submit here that he undervalues the power of relationship that we can see at every level of internal and external motivations. So much of what we do is about the people for whom we do it. We want our jobs to help others, making products or providing services that measurably improve lives. We work for our families, loved ones, and to give ourselves time to spend with friends. So, as teachers, our greatest motivational tool is to reach out to our students and get to know them as people. It’s even better when we can do this in the context of their families, meeting their parents and learning from the experts. 

And so, one of the most important motivational factors in helping a student see why he should care about Latin is to show him first that I care about him. Not his grade or performance or even abstractions like his character or vocation. The student in front of me. Do I ask about his games and practices? Do I know how many siblings he has? Is there anything he’s so passionate about he’s trying to teach himself? Each of these and many more questions won’t just reveal quirks or fun facts about my students, they’ll show them that I see Latin as one aspect of their development and education, but that I’m interested in their complete development and education. 

Whenever I felt like a teacher didn’t just know who I was but also cared about my success, my work ethic increased no matter how hopeless I considered myself in the topic at hand. Sure, this work can be left to the Mentors, and they do have the obligation to know the students best. But every teacher has the ability to get to know the students in front of him and to see them as more than a list of strengths and weaknesses in a given subject. The conversations with the faculty change, too, as we discuss how best to help a boy. Bringing in the perspective of two or three teachers, the parents, and the mentor can remind a frustrated teacher of what else this student deals with and see him as a human with his own motivations and goals.

Relationships can make motivation a real multiplier toward those goals.

About the Author

Tom Cox

Chief Editor

Tom Cox teaches Latin and Greek in the Upper School at The Heights, where he has taught since 2009. Having earned his B.A. in Classics at Hillsdale, he completed a Master’s Degree in 2019 in the Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD.

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