Five Ways to Motivate Students

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008; 6:11 AM

My Post colleague Marc Fisher had a terrific rant on his Raw Fisher blog last week about a story I did on the strange case of Matthew Nuti. Matthew is a bright if somewhat disorganized 16-year-old, recently expelled from the very selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology because his grade point average slipped below 3.0.

Marc objected to this new and extraordinary school policy. "Grades are a means of communication and motivation," he said. They won't work in that way, Marc said, if you turn "mediocre grades into a death sentence." You can't motivate a corpse, just as you can't urge greater effort out of a student who has been kicked out of your school.

Marc's reminder of the importance of motivation in education inspired me to resurrect one of the best books I have read on the topic, and add it to the Better Late Than Never Book Club, my official list of works I should have read when they actually arrived in the mail. This latest entry is a particularly hideous example of my slothful tendencies. "Engaging Minds: Motivation and Learning in America's Schools" by David A. Goslin was published in 2003.

Thankfully, good advice never goes stale. Goslin's thoughts, still fresh and relevant, can be summarized as five ways to motivate students, a topic of central importance in the national effort to improve our schools.

1. Only work on those who need it. Goslin, past president and chief executive of the American Institutes for Research and former executive director of the National Research Council's Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, has a lesson for Marc, me and other report-card advocates. Grades, he says, are often not as motivating as we would like them to be. They lose their power for most students because "only so many A's and B's are awarded in each class, irrespective of the performance of the rest of the students in the class. Underlying this practice is the philosophy that if all of the children received high marks, grades would lose their value to motivate student performance. The result, therefore, is that many students are not motivated to work hard because they know that they have little chance of beating out the best students for a good grade." How do you motivate them then? That is what the rest of the book is about. Goslin suggests, among other things, well-planned teaching, more optimism about each child's chance to learn, closer teacher-student relationships, smaller schools and grading by mastery, not the curve -- meaning you tell the students what they must learn, check off each concept or skill as they master it, and don't fret if some students take longer than others.

2. Stop telling them they're smart. "While there is much talk in American society about the importance of hard work and its relationship to success in life," Goslin writes, "most Americans act as though innate abilities are the primary determinants of their most important accomplishments." Obvious signs of this culture tendency include gifted-and-talented programs and college admissions based on the SAT. Goslin favors the contrasting Asian philosophy that effort, not brains, brings success. He also wants teachers to make clear to each student what has to be learned, and express confidence each can learn it.

3. Make sure the homework isn't stupid. Goslin calls this problem "inefficiencies in the learning processes." He says, "There is a great deal of evidence that an enormous amount of effort on the part of children, not to mention their parents and teachers, is wasted." We all have favorite examples, like the log cabin we made out of Tootsie Rolls for history class, or those names of obscure points of grammar we never quite memorized and later realized even professional writers don't need to know, or the copying of long passages that would have been better remembered if our teacher had encouraged discussion of their relevance to our world. Goslin says learning would benefit if we dispensed with the notion that every teacher, school or district should pick the textbooks and teaching methods they like best. He prefers a national curriculum and nationally certified teaching methods based on research on what works, and what doesn't. I sense he would also support letting teachers with good track records do anything they want.

4. Show some respect for learning. We Americans, despite our bookish founding fathers, have always had an anti-intellectual streak. Watch any teen drama on television to see how the best students are portrayed. One of our great economic strengths is our willingness to forgive bad grades in school if you show up to work on time and apply yourself to your job. If you come up with some great new ideas, all the better, no matter what your grade-point average was. The richest man in the world, that bespectacled genius in Washington state, is a college dropout. Goslin understands our attitude, but pleads for some adjustment. Maybe we should point out to our children that although Bill Gates doesn't have a bachelor of arts degree, he sometimes goes off for days at a time just to read books and think.

5. Involve the kid's family. "The school is only one of the two principal socializing institutions in society, the other being the family," Goslin says. He wants more support at home for learning. My only complaint is that he gets the sequence wrong. He leaves the impression that the schools need involved parents to improve, when in many instances skeptical and distracted parents only become engaged in their children's studies when they encounter great educators who are raising achievement and asking parents to back them up. Motivation comes from many places, but if teachers don't know how to produce it, none of the rest of us are going to have a chance of having any impact on our favorite reluctant scholars.

(Note: Would souldrummer, the thoughtful reader who often comments here, please contact me at to discuss an educational issue?)

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