When Students Don’t Work

Going to school isn’t a job. Students don’t get paid. And yes, they are forced to be there. Therefore I am always hesitant to apply business advice to schools. But more and more I am seeing that project management strategies often do apply to student groups in PBL.

In 4 Reasons Good Employees Lose their Motivation on the Harvard Business Review, they identify the following causes of a lack of motivation:

  • Values mismatch
  • Lack of self efficacy
  • Disruptive emotions
  • Attribution errors

In order to help an employee find motivation, the the proper “trap” should be identified leading to applying the appropriate solution. I believe this can be adapted to leading a class of collaborative groups using PBL.

Values Mismatch

This trap can be summarized as “I don’t care enough to do this.” I would argue that this is the most prevalent motivational problem that we have in school because of our one size fits all, mandated curriculum. PBL is a great approach because it gives the teacher freedom to customize their class to their students’ interests and abilities.

The first step in fixing a values mismatch is to know your students. Build relationships with your kids and discover their passions. Then PBL projects can be designed to connect with them. I have even designed an entire class project with only one student in mind, that is struggling to engage in my class. Students will find more value in a class where they have a positive relationship with the teacher and they feel like the content addresses issues that matter to them.

Lack of Self Efficacy

In this trap students are saying “I don’t think that I am able to do this.” Except students rarely say this out loud. Instead they avoid the task with disruptive behavior or shut down by sleeping or daydreaming. Oftentimes this student tries to hide the embarrassment of lack of ability or belief in themselves from both the teacher and other students. It is crucial that teachers see through these smokescreens and identify the real cause of student actions.

Again the first step is knowing your students and then applying the appropriate scaffolds to help them succeed. Have you identified your students who are EL or special ed? What about the students who don’t have an official “label” but need support? Show students quality examples and give them outlines and other scaffolds to get started. Acknowledge when they are successful to help them build confidence. Most importantly remove scaffolds when students don’t need them anymore and point out the growth to students.

“Remember at the beginning of the year, you needed my help to multiply fractions. Now you can do it all by yourself!”

Disruptive Emotions

Sometimes students are feeling that “I am too upset to do this.” One of the reasons that I like to start class by meeting kids at the door is to check on their emotional state when they get there. This goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If students are angry or depressed, then they will not be able to focus on school.

Be a caring listener. Have a private conversation with the student and hear out what is bothering them. I often ask students if they would like to talk to a counselor or another trusted adult if I can’t give them the time that they need during class. We rarely can fix whatever is bothering them in the middle of a busy class but students must know that we care about their well being more than the content that we teach. Ask students if they think that can do the tasks of the class that day. Once they have been truly heard, most students can focus on what they need to.

Attribution Errors

This trap is when students say, “I don’t know what went wrong with this.” I think in schools this is usually an avoidance ploy of the above, Lack of Self Efficacy variety. Students (and adults too) don’t want to admit failures or weaknesses so they shift to excuses of “I was too busy” or blaming group members for not completing tasks.

One solution that can help student groups is teaching them to hold each other accountable. I like to use a Student Scrum Board or Trello for groups to regulate themselves. With a clear plan for project management, then students can focus on the actual problem of lack of skills or perhaps a values mismatch as being the real reason that work is not being completed.

None of these are magic, but it is always important to know our students and to properly assess why they may not be successful on a given day. I also think that it is critical to their growth to acknowledge what has been holding them back and how they have overcome it. Then the next time that they are feeling unmotivated they can learn to self analyze the cause and self correct.

One thought on “When Students Don’t Work

  1. Pingback: Sharing Diigo Links and Resources (weekly) | Another EducatorAl Blog

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