What Motivates Students to Meet a Challenge? Student Answers and Teacher Actions

_MG_9238By Kathleen Cushman and Allison Zmuda

When we question our students about “what it takes to get really good at something” and give them the space to respond, it is amazing how insightful they can be — and how much of it lines up with the neuroscience of learning. Here are nine answers that students gave in the book Fires in the Mind, along with related teacher actions to consider incorporating into your regular practice.

1. Let us see what we’re aiming for

  • Show models of exemplary work
  • Show real-world connections to questions, problems, challenges that experts are facing in various fields

2. Break down what we need to learn

  • Identify the knowledge and skills needed
  • Set realistic goals to create an achievable challenge

3. Give us lots of ways to understand

  • Present concepts and skills in different ways to help students find a foothold

4. Teach us to critique and revise everything we do

  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to make changes as they learn from mistakes
  • Keep good records of student progress on key concepts and skills

5. Assess us all the time, not just in high-stakes ways

  • Use diagnostic and formative assessment to monitor learners’ progress
  • Focus less on the grade and more on the information you receive about your teaching from looking at student work

6. Chart our small successes

  • Make sure all students know their individual goals—and acknowledge their progress towards them

7. Ask us to work as an expert team

  • Teach key skills of collaboration (how to come to consensus on a plan, how to manage time, how to make sure everyone pulls their weight)
  • Evaluate collaboration skills when assessing a group project, presentation, or performance

8. Help us extend our knowledge through using it

  • Build meaningful applications of concepts and skills into daily instruction and larger projects

9. Use performances to assess our academic understanding

  • Seek out audiences for student work so as to underline its authenticity and relevance
  • Make time for students to rehearse, critique, and revise before their presentations

Two more suggestions to make this come alive in your classroom or school:

  • Give your students the list above (minus teacher actions) and ask for their input. What would they change about it, and why?
  • Have your students create their own list of advice. You might use this free publication by What Kids Can Do: “First Ask, Then Listen: How to Get Your Students to Help You Teach Them Better.”

Finally, don’t forget your part. Make your own contract to the students in support of their motivation to learn.



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