Student motivation: An adult problem with grown-up solutions
By Vinod Lobo, Learning Upgrade
How can we motivate the lowest performing students in a school to complete a rigorous standards-based curriculum and move up to grade level proficiency? Given the challenges of poverty, diversity, special needs, and English language learners, many have assumed that this is a student problem; that the lowest performing students cannot complete a challenging curriculum. A recent visit to an urban school facing all of these challenges brought to light that with the right approach all students, especially at-risk students, can be motivated to achieve academic success and gain confidence in themselves within one school year. This is an adult problem, not a student one, but thankfully there are grown-up solutions that can be implemented by educators and leadership at any school.
The school I visited recently was an urban middle school in San Diego that supports an 88% economically disadvantaged, 98% minority, and 42% English learner student population. I was invited to a pizza party for students who had completed a rigorous online math and ELA curriculum within the school year, many of which saw greater than one grade level of growth. A group of 140 students were gathered in the library for the party. To kick off the celebration, an English Language Learner and recent immigrant was awarded the grand prize, a tablet computer for her accomplishments. She had tears in her eyes as she accepted the award.
As the rest of the recipients were announced, students clapped in between bites of pizza. I thought, just a simple pizza party generated this much excitement. Then I started talking with the students. One had transferred to the school just two months before. I asked, “How did you complete the entire course so quickly?” He used a school-provided netbook at home to work every evening and weekends, so he could catch up with his classmates and join the party! His teacher had worked with him to create a plan to complete his work with her support, and encouraged him to catch up on his own time so he could join his peers at the party. When we walked to his class student accolades and accomplishments covered the walls. He pointed excitedly to his, proof that he had not only completed the course, but also achieved greater than 95% proficiency in each of the math and ELA lessons that were completed. His eyes lit up with pride as he told me more about it.
Suddenly other students crowed around, excited to share their successes with me. Then it hit me, the excitement wasn’t at all about the pizza party, these students were extremely proud of what they had done – of what they had learned and accomplished.
A sixth grade student had even completed 6th, 7th, and 8th grade courses despite starting 6th grade below grade level and behind his peers. Not only did he catch up, he surpassed many of his classmates on his own. Through a combination of in-class, after school, and at-home time this student had completed 60 lessons to over 95% proficiency, with roughly 25 hours time-on-task per grade level course to earn his spot at the pizza party. Through a combination of the right amount of support and encouragement from teachers and involvement from school leaders and engaging curriculum (no more drill and kill!) students surpassed all expectations. They were motivated!
Great stuff, huh? But it’s Not About the Free Pizza!
At that point I realized this school is special. Its educators and leadership had created that rare and elusive, almost magical, atmosphere where students are self-motivated to learn.
It wasn’t a few slices of pizza they were after. It was recognition, the feeling of achievement and a boost in self-confidence as well as the opportunity to prove they can “do it.” For some, this may have been the first time in their lives they felt confident enough to succeed in completing rigorous coursework at their own grade-level. For others, this was first time academic success was achieved at any level, and gave them the opportunity to bring something home to proudly show their parents. Enthusiasm and excitement was everywhere at this pizza party, again, it wasn’t about the pizza.
Leadership from the Vice Principal
The success at this school started with leadership at the school. In this case, the vice principal spearheaded the initiative. His support was an integral piece to student success. He visited every classroom giving each student the chance to share what he or she was doing and brag about progress being made. All the while he gave praise and reminded every student of the goal, their success, and the prize that awaited them which was the exclusive pizza party for those that put in the time and effort to complete their work.
This hands-on approach touched every student in the school with a personal and exciting message: when you achieve this goal you will be rewarded and recognized for your accomplishments. The excitement or “buzz” traveled around the school, with students, teachers, and parents talking about it. Everyone knew the goals, the rules, and the rewards, which were within reach of every student at the school regardless of status or learning differences.
Inspiring Teachers Make Motivated Students
My visit to these classrooms, talking with students and chatting with a number of teachers at this school, was inspirational to say the least. Teachers made a point to have daily conversations with students about progress, encouraged them to finish, provided support when needed, showed on-screen reports on classroom projectors, and proudly displayed the gold certificates from each student on classroom walls. They created an atmosphere where academic success was encouraged, rewarded and COOL! I observed students who realized that excitement, fun, and learning were part of their daily academic lives.
On the day of the party, these teachers walked proudly into the library with their students. They were a team, working together, like a coach and a basketball team going up to claim their hard-earned trophy.
Creating a “Motivational Atmosphere” at Your School
Leadership and educators at this school developed a way to motivate even the most difficult to reach students. Their plan was well thought out, taking some key steps to ensure they, the adults, created the right process to foster growth, confidence, motivation for learning and the sense of accomplishment in their students.
- Select a high-quality supplementary program:
- Choose one that individualizes and differentiates for each student’s needs, this school used curriculum from Learning Upgrade that features song, music, videos and games that reach all students, regardless of learning style
- Choose one that covers standards and meets your students needs in math & reading (including phonics/phonemic awareness for special needs and English learners), writing, grammar, and vocabulary
- Set a school-wide goal with a common reward
- Ensure leadership at the school visits each classroom to make students and teachers know that everyone is behind them
- Set parameters for tracking data and what success looks like
- Reinforce goals and rewards at every opportunity, such as assemblies and parent meetings, don’t forget to celebrate the progress along the way
- Encourage out-of-school time by opening up computer labs before and after school or on Saturdays. Make use of school computers or tablets to assign students work at home. Partner with local libraries and community centers to provide computer access to those who don’t have it at home
- Count Down to the Party or whatever end goal you choose
- Schedule the event right after end-of-semester or end-of-year testing, so students achieve their goals before important tests
- Count down how many weeks are left, and communicate clearly with students what they have to achieve each week to finish on time
Get Motivated to Motivate Your Students
As you can see, it takes work by leadership and educators alike to reach students and create that magic atmosphere where students are motivated to complete rigorous individualized coursework on their own, but he reward is worthwhile. The smile on the face of a student as he or she shares recent accomplishments truly says it all. Every student can be motivated to achieve great things. All it takes is us, the adults, to create the conditions for students to shine!
Vinod Lobo is the CEO and co-founder of Learning Upgrade, a leading provider of online, supplementary Math and ELA curriculum. He has made it his life’s mission to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn, regardless of their socioeconomic status. He tweets at @LearningUpgrade