Motivation in Schools
The topic I originally planned to look into for my Action Research Paper was the affect of reward systems on a student’s academic performance. My idea was that a student’s performance could be influenced by the presence of a reward system. I was interested in seeing if certain subject areas were more likely to use such systems than other subject areas. I strived to see if a student’s academic performance could mean more than just their exam scores and ability to complete assignments. I wished to see if a reward system could change the way a student was motivated in the classroom; to see if their overall attitude could be changed. I also thought to look into their attendance in classes where motivation was present. I wanted to see if they were less frequently absent and if they participated more. And lastly, I thought it would be interesting to see if students felt they could in turn change their “destiny” in education, or if they simply believed they are predestined for something else.
As I was looking further into my topic at hand, I decided to go a different way with my paper. I got away from the “reward system” and decided to look into student motivation as my topic, focusing on the teacher-student relationship. In high school, I can remember one teacher that changed the way I saw science and it affected me greatly. Before this teacher, although I was always in advanced science classes, I never achieved high grades. I always struggled to keep up with other students, and when I performed poorly on exams, my previous teachers never thought to why I had done so. She approached science in a way I had never seen before, and she offered recognition and praise. She set up the classroom in such a way that I never felt I was being left behind, and she encouraged us always to work up to our potential, and then some. I was motivated to do well and in a way I had never cared for before.
I chose to look from the student’s point of view, instead of talking only to teachers. I thought it would be more useful to see what the students thought, as I am pursuing my graduate education in Secondary Education. My ultimate goal, to be a teacher, could only benefit from the research I was setting out to collect. I wanted to know what circumstances student’s felt most comfortable working in. Also, I wanted to see what made them “tick” inside the classroom.
I had the opportunity to use some of the readings I had to complete for my SED 213 class for this paper. In that class, we used two textbooks which I felt fit my topics needs. The chapters on motivation proved useful to my paper, and even gave me ideas to look further into. In the chapter, it discussed a student’s need for affiliation and approval. By wanting to be a part of a group, a student might be motivated to perform in a certain way, in order to gain entrance to that group and in turn gain their approval. The idea of achievement motivation was also brought up, in which students need to excel only for their own sake without external rewards.
I found that Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards and many other books on education, feels that achievement motivation is most important to a student truly learning. He feels that authentic experiences in the classroom can only occur when the teacher leaves out all words of praise and punishment. He feels that praise can often be empty in nature, and in turn could actually do more damage to a student than good. Punishments are also damaging, because students could be turned off to learning because they constantly feel threatened by the teacher. He feels that if we want students to take responsibility for their learning, it is up to us to give them responsibilities. They will in turn learn to make good decisions by having the opportunity to decide what happens to them every day, and not by following someone else’s directions.
Kohn also feels that traditional grades turns student’s creativity off and causes them to lose interest in what they are learning. He also feels that they lead students to avoid challenging tasks. He made a point of noting that most students feel the point of going to school is to get A’s, and not to really learn. It is this need to perform that poses a threat to the education of all students, and traditional grades are the ultimate cause. There is more to memorizing the right answers; because teachers haven’t completely done their job if the students don’t understand why those answers are the right ones.
Greg Michie’s book, Holler if you Hear Me, took the opposite approach to what Kohn proposed. He not only offered his students praise when he felt they deserved it, but he took the time to empathize with them. He knew nothing about their cultures, and in time he came to learn many things about them. In the courses that he taught he always sought to find the best way to relate the material to his students. He often had them read about people from their cultures to serve as motivation that they could be more than the neighborhood expected of them. He also motivated his students by keeping his ears open to them, he listened when they talked, which was not always the case with their other teachers.
I initially planned to gather my research primarily by interviewing at least 10 high school teachers, varying in their subject areas. I also planned to look further into the differences in advanced versus regular classes when it comes to motivating students to perform. I looked forward to observing first hand the ways in which a teacher uses a reward system during my school visits. After changing my initial proposal, I also decided to revamp the method I was previously going to use to collect my research.
Instead of interviewing 10 teachers, I decided to go right to the students, and I surveyed 30 students in two different classes. I was placed in Uniondale High School for my observations for another graduate course, and I thought I would use my time there to my benefit. Uniondale High School is in Nassau County. The school has about 1400 students in grades 9-12. There are 93 teachers in the school, with 27 other professionals and 24 para-professionals also on staff. The students are 77% African American, 19% Hispanic and 4% White and other. The average class size is 23 students.
I decided to ask my cooperating teacher if she would allow the students to take my survey. After looking one over, she gave her approval and I set the stage for the surveys. She allowed me to be involved with them, instead of just observing in the rear of the classroom, so that made it easier for me to ask them to help me with my research.
I waited until my second day of observing to distribute the surveys. I chose her two AP Social Studies classes because they had a smaller number of students. I felt that they would have more room to spread out during the surveys, so that no one would know what they were writing down. I also put the surveys on smaller pieces of paper so they could easily fold them up after finishing them. Before handing out the surveys I explained to them what I was using them for. I told them why I had decided to go into teaching, and how my research paper would help me to become the best teacher I could be. With that all said they were eager to get started. (I have attached a copy of the survey to the back of this paper).
All of the students pooled felt that they would tend to work harder in classes where the teacher offered praise. On most of the surveys they wrote additional comments on the reverse side of the survey. Most felt that in their school there were more teachers that put students down than those who offered praise. When presented with the opportunity to receive encouragement for their hard work, they wanted to continue working hard because they enjoyed that feeling. They expressed the wish that more teachers would use words of encouragement in the classroom instead of only negative comments.
They felt that there was more of an emphasis on what they didn’t do than what they had done. When they forgot their homework assignment, a fuss was made from the teacher, but when they received a good mark on a paper nothing was said. They expressed that they often felt discouraged by this practice, and decided to not spend as much time on future assignments. A few students mentioned that it didn’t matter if they received praise or not, they did not care to work hard in classes. They described a sort of unspoken code in the classroom where some students might decide to act up to keep face in front of the other students. In their words, no body wants to be the teachers pet.
They had mixed feelings on whether a reward system would be beneficial in their classroom. Some felt that some students would only perform for the reward, and not the actual learning experience. Others felt that a student shouldn’t need such a system, and that if they were interested in learning in general, they would learn with or without a reward system. They also were split on the idea of cooperative learning. Some felt that it was useful in the classroom because it allowed the class to be broken down into smaller groups, and they would feel more comfortable asking questions. Others felt cooperative learning was ineffective because these small groups often didn’t do the tasks at hand, and wasted time just socializing. They also felt that it wasn’t fair for the whole group to receive the same grade because some students tend to not pitch in as much as others.
The most responses came from the question about whether or not students felt teachers treated students differently. Overwhelmingly, most responded that teachers favored students in advanced classes over regular classes. They felt that advanced students had more freedom in class, and that not as many classroom rules were in place. They also felt that they got better grades because the teachers “liked” them better as well. Students in the regular classes often were subjected to stricter rules, with less opportunities for creative learning because they were too often falling behind in lesson plans because of classroom disruptions. As for whether or not teachers treat male and female students different, most felt it wasn’t a practice at their school. They felt they were more likely to be judged by whether or not they were good students, not if they were male or female.
Although I felt that the surveys did produce enough feedback to help me with my research paper, I do feel that I could have also benefited from other sources. If given more time, perhaps I would have enjoyed setting up interviews with the students I observed. I was present in their class for three days in a row and I felt at the end that they were quite familiar with my being there. If I had been able to conduct interviews at the end, I feel that my answers could have included more detail on specifics, such as what types of praise they prefer or how a teacher could set up cooperative learning so that all could enjoy and benefit from it. I think that they would have enjoyed having more input in my paper, as they were already honored that I wanted to know what they thought about their classroom settings. I also would have liked to hand out he survey to other classes not on the AP level but could not find the time to do so.
Instead of just focusing my time in Uniondale High School, I would have enjoyed pooling other schools from different areas other than Uniondale as well. Because my placement was in Uniondale, it made for easier access to the students. I had also wanted to survey two social studies classes from my old high school, but my relentless phone calls were not returned in sufficient time to allow that. I thought it would have served as a nice comparison, demographically, because my high school was in a neighborhood which consisted of mostly middle class white students and a very small Asian population. Unlike Uniondale, whose student body is primarily made up of African American students, with a small amount of Hispanic students and even fewer Asian or whites.
I reviewed the surveys numerous times, and after reading my journal entry for my other graduate class on my observations, it came to me. The process I had gone through to write my paper was meta-cognitive in nature. I had picked my initial topic, only to find out later that a new topic would suit better. I changed it, and set out on a new road collecting information and analyzing it. And even now, when the paper is done the process continues because I realized there were limitations which if not present, my paper would have been even better. I think this is important to relay to students.
I think that too often students, like me, have felt they are at a dead end. Instead of trying to run themselves around and go down a different educational road, they chose to relinquish control to fate and continue on the road they are familiar with. Motivation in the classroom can change that. Although I do not agree whole heartedly with Alfie Kohn’s philosophy on motivation, I do agree that students will work better if they feel they have a say in their education.
In my classroom, on the first day of every year, I was thinking that I would put up on the blackboard these two words: student and teacher. I would put under each blank line, and I would ask my students to think of answers for what they expect from a teacher. I in turn, would write down what I expect from them as students. Giving them the option to say what they feel a teacher should be could be a positive growing experience for both them and myself. Each class could want different things, and I feel it is my job to realize their needs and try to address them as best I can.
I know it sounds corny, but I truly feel that education in the classroom is a two way street. Teachers and students can only flourish when able to both get to where they are going by removing obstacles that would limit their driving experience. I look forward to my teaching career, and although I know I’m bound to have a few fender benders along the way, I hope the journey as a whole is a productive one.
Daniels, H. & Bizar, M. (1998). Methods that Matter. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Ryan, K. & Cooper, J. (2004). Kaleidoscope: Readings in Education (10th Ed.). Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Michie, G. (1999). Holler if you hear me. New York: Teachers College Press.
McDevitt, T. & Ormrod, J. (2002) Child Development (2nd Ed.). Columbus, OH: Pearson Prentice Hall.