To achieve excellence, most students must be highly motivated. Unfortunately, many students with learning problems, such as learning disabilities and cognitive impairment, appear unmotivated to learn what teachers are teaching.

This can become the most difficult and vexing instructional problem that teachers, parents and support personnel face.

It is a mistake to assume that each "unmotivated" student is actually unmotivated. Often, the problem lies in the direction and strength of his (or her) motivation: What does he want to get or accomplish? What does he want to escape from? How strong are his "wants" and desires to "escape"? Does he have a strong "want" to master mathematics or a strong "want" to escape it, quit school, get a job and hang out with friends?

It also lies in the student's beliefs. Few "unmotivated" students wake up and say, "Today, I'll do a lousy job. I want to fail. I want to humiliate myself. I'll be unmotivated." Just the opposite. Like many of us, students with learning problems are highly motivated to protect themselves from the threat of failure and the embarrassment and loss of self-esteem it produces.

Jules Abrams poignantly described this underlying dynamic:

"It is almost inevitable that a child who is experiencing severe difficulty in reading will develop intense feelings of frustration. As reading failure continues, many symptoms of social and emotional maladjustment will appear.

"Children, increasingly bewildered by their inability to meet the expectations of their parents, their teachers and their peers develop a hypersensitivity to the possibility of failure. This fear of further wounds to their pride exacerbates the problem simply because children cannot risk any further humiliation. Instead, all too often, children act out aggressively, withdraw, become depressed or choose any one of many other maladaptive solutions."

Motivation emanates from experiences, feelings, beliefs and expectations. A student's motivation — his willingness to invest time and energy in an activity and take the risk that he may do poorly on it is specific to the activity and situation. A student with a history of reading failure may tenaciously resist anything associated with reading. This same student may toil ceaselessly to earn the bike of his dreams.

Once you understand the "unmotivated" student's assumptions and beliefs, his avoidance of school activities makes sense. Few of us, for example, would make sustained, meaningful efforts to learn mathematics after years of continued, humiliating failure.

Unfortunately, failure compounds failure, resulting in fearful expectations of even more failure. Thus, a rash of escape behaviors to "save face" during mathematics should not surprise anyone. From the student's perspective, it makes sense to create disturbances or retreat into a passive, blasé, lackadaisical mode.

Just as it is a mistake to view students with "motivational" problems as solidly uninterested or unmotivated, it is a mistake to view motivation as a solid, impenetrable boulder. By analyzing some of the more modifiable elements of motivation, teachers, parents and support personnel can increase the odds of reducing or eliminating resistance to learning.

Searching for answers

The "Student Motivation Problem-Solving Probe" asks teachers. parents and school support personal, such as school psychologists and learning consultants, to complete the probe as if they were the student. Thus, they need to be familiar with the student's behavior and his thinking.

In some cases, this will require observing him in situations in which he typically appears unmotivated and situations in which his motivation is not an issue. It may also require informal, amicable conversations with him, to better understand what supports or undermines his efforts to do well in school.

The probe can help program planners analyze a student's motivation. It can help them better understand why he resists or aimlessly meanders through activities or subjects. By focusing on several modifiable research-based influences that underlie motivation, the probe's statements avoid blame. Instead, they treat "unmotivated" behavior as a problem that schools need to solve.

The probe is an informal guide for focused thought. It is not a norm-referenced scientific instrument for predicting behavior or distinguishing between students. Instead, it presents statements about some, but not all, the crucial factors that influence motivation.

Discussions that systematically analyze responses to the probe's statements can yield an accurate understanding of the dynamics underlying the student's resistance to specific activities and subjects. In turn, increased understanding can produce ideas that increase the odds of motivating the student to achieve, both inside and outside of school.

Achievement, of course, requires lessons that are consistently responsive to the student's well-defined independent, instructional and frustration levels. The links at the end of this article refer to free LD Source articles that explain many aspects of these critical levels, levels that dramatically affect student motivation.

Student Motivation Problem-Solving Probe

Students may appear unmotivated to do what teachers and parents ask of them. Often, their lack of motivation is associated with specific activities, such as reading and homework.

Think of a specific activity that the student regularly avoids, partially completes or executes carelessly. To avoid the activity, he might be unusually inattentive or disruptive. Or with minimal effort and thought, he may do what is asked of him, achieving far less than he easily capable of. Despite superior mathematics abilities, he may submit math homework replete with errors.

Answers to the statements below can identify reasons for the student's apparent lack of motivation. School personnel and parents can then use this information to formulate a program to encourage the student’s active involvement and conscientious effort to do well.

For example, if the student believes the subject matter is unimportant, demonstrate to him how it can help him achieve a goal that is personally important to him. If he finds that a social studies unit is uninteresting, introduce novelty or ask curiosity arousing statements. Pair him with an enthusiastic, task-oriented friend or design some of the unit's lessons as competitive team games that his team can win if he makes a moderate effort.

Answers to the first section should address a specific activity for which the student appears unmotivated, such as writing. The second section refers to the student's general orientation. If you do not know an answer, write DK for "Do not know." This suggests a need for more information

In both sections, answer each of the statement from the student's perspective. That's why the sections contain the statement "I think that ..."

Keep in mind that you are trying to understand the student's view of things, not anyone else's.

5 (Yes) — 4 — 3 — 2 — 1 (No) — DK

The Specific Activity — "I think that ..."

1. ___________ The activity is enjoyable.

2. ___________ The subject is interesting.

3. ___________ I can succeed on the activity if I make a reasonable effort.

4. ___________ I've had success with similar activities.

5. ___________ The subject is important to me.

6. ___________ I'll soon succeed on the activity.

7. ___________ My efforts will produce a satisfying outcome.

8. ___________ I'll get whatever support I need to succeed.

9. ___________ I'll be positively reinforced for my efforts.

10. __________ I'll be positively reinforced for my successes.

11. __________ I'll quickly get the reinforcement I want if I successfully compete the activity,

12. __________ I much prefer to involve myself in other available activities.

13. __________ My effort will help me achieve my goals.

14. __________ My success on these activities will help me achieve my goals.

The Student's General Beliefs — "I think that ..."

15. __________ My good attention, focus, and effort are responsible for many of the positive things that happen to me.

16. __________ My poor attention, focus, and effort are responsible for many of the negative things that happen to me.

17. __________ My peers value school success.

18. __________ I want to please my teachers, parents, and peers.

19. __________ I have important short-range goals.

20. __________ I have important long-range goals.

Discussion of results

Once the results are available, all involved parties need to share and discuss their answers. Then, they need to jointly plan a program to improve the student's motivation. To know whether the plan is effective, they should frequently monitor the student's progress at least twice monthly and jointly hold progress monitoring meetings every four to six weeks.

The reason for progress monitoring is straightforward. At best, any formal evaluation or informal probe can only help you generate hypotheses informed, educated guesses as to what program will prove effective for the student. What works for one does not work for all.

Often, the program we think will prove effective needs tweaking, major revisions or replacement. Thus, this probe is only an informal guide, a small part of what may be a larger, more complex set of student needs.

So, use the probe as a guide for your initial thinking and discussions, not a tool that always yields valid answers that definitively generate effective and efficient programs.

Helpful resources