Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

6 Common Mistakes That Undermine Motivation: Telling Students to Study Simply Because They Must or Making Narrow Pitches to a Subject's Future Utility Typically Fail to Generate Student Interest

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

6 Common Mistakes That Undermine Motivation: Telling Students to Study Simply Because They Must or Making Narrow Pitches to a Subject's Future Utility Typically Fail to Generate Student Interest

Article excerpt

After teenage Sarah's car went careening into another, she stood on the side of the road looking over the crumpled vehicles and processing what had just happened. She'd been traveling about 45 miles per hour when the other car had turned suddenly in front of her. Even as she jerked her foot onto the brake to decelerate, her car had been barreling along with too much momentum to stop and had slammed into the other car with enough force to make both bumpers fold like accordions. If she had been going faster or driving a heavier car, the damage would have ? been even more severe.

As scary as this incident was for I Sarah, her reaction was every teacher's dream as she called on her newly I minted understanding of force and acceleration to interpret her accident. A week earlier, her physics teacher, Mr. Knowles, had used the scenario of a car accident while explaining force and acceleration. Ever mindful of her father's insistence that she "drive carefully," Sarah had been closely attuned to Knowles' explanation of the physics behind car accidents. This was highly relevant information that could, in theory, help her stay out of trouble.

Even though her physics knowledge didn't ultimately save the day, the possibility of an accident had helped Sarah process and internalize the key concepts of physics. Indeed, when a student perceives a topic in school to be relevant to her life or when a student takes an interest in a topic for its own sake, that student is more likely to invest the mental energy necessary for learning (Blumenfeld, Kempler, & Krajcik, 2006). Of course, the opposite also is true. Disinterest and perceptions of irrelevance are major reasons students disengage in high school classrooms (National Research Council, 2003).

Certainly, this is not new information. Most teachers can rattle off "rigor, relevance, and relationships" as critical components for student engagement. But beyond knowing that relevance matters, teachers don't always know how to help adolescent students find that relevance. Quite frankly, they might not realize just how important it is to do so.

In a recent study, I examined student engagement at Riley High School, a large comprehensive high school in Texas serving a socioeconomically and racially diverse student body (44% Latino, 44% white, and 12% black) that was performing near the state average on academic achievement tests (Cooper, in press). I began by surveying 1,132 students (80% of the student body) about engagement and perceptions of teaching in each of their classes. The survey asked students to report on 12 facets of each class, including their perceptions of concepts like relevance, teacher care, and teacher passion along with the frequency of things like group work, projects, and challenging assignments. I then examined the statistical relationships between student perceptions of each construct and their levels of engagement. Figure 1 shows that student perception of relevance was the single strongest predictor of engagement. In follow-up classroom observations and interviews with students, I explored these dynamics in more depth. In doing so, I found interesting nuances in how students talked about relevance and interest in different classes, and their comments mapped closely on to research on student engagement. (All names in this article are pseudonyms.)

In talking with educators about these findings, I've identified six common mistakes that teachers make in regards to fostering relevance and interest among high school students. Research and theory suggest that these mistakes ultimately undermine student motivation and so should be avoided.

Mistake #1: "Because we have to"

Fundamentally, people need a defined purpose to engage with anything, and for most adolescents (who are developmentally primed for autonomy), the rationale "because we have to" is insufficient. Thus, when teachers overlook the need to define the purpose for a particular lesson and the broader subject domain, they are asking students to learn something that has no value for them. …

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