Friday, December 31, 2010


Sometimes students lack the success to which they are capable, not because they can’t learn, but because they just “don’t wanna.” There are many distractions from learning for teenagers and the trick to getting better performance is to find the right motivators.

Parents often struggle with advise from one reliable source that is diametrically opposed to advise from another, equally trusted colleague. One family uses financial rewards while another tries strict discipline. One parent supports free will and natural consequences while another prefers rigid controls. The problem with selecting motivators comes when they are imposed upon a student rather than springing from the wants and needs of the student him- or herself.

To begin assessing the options available for making the learning process easier and more effective for our students, let’s look at what motivates the teen in the first place. In later blogs, we can examine perception and processing avenues, but for now, let’s work off the premise that our kids will prevail if we can arouse the desire to invest as heavily in academics as in their non-scholastic endeavors.

In terms of motivation, people can be placed in 4 general categories based on the desire to be active or passive (sometimes referred to as the demand for results where active means outcomes are vital and passive means "whatever") and the relative necessity for strong relationships.

Two cautionary comments must precede assessment of the student’s classification:
1. Although it is frequently postulated that teens are social creatures (witness the phone bill, social networks, and the like), that generalization is not appropriate when dealing with an individual student.
2. While one category might be significantly stronger than the other three, no person is monochromatic. Each student will be a conglomeration of all 4 styles, which
3. might be manifest in different situations. My own father, for example, was a highly dominant figure at work but in a family situation tended toward the steady personality. A student will also vary in his or her identity, disposition, and nature based on the situation. In a class where the teacher or subject is a favorite, the student may be extroverted while favoring a compliant approach if the class is high risk. In the first case, the motivator may be approval and recognition from the teacher or other students, but the second instance may require clear-cut rules and time to organize.

Step one is to determine where the student falls within each of the 4 categories. The student should complete the Adjective Checklist:


Read each adjective listed and check ALL ADJECTIVES you feel describe you.

Score the Adjective Checklist:
Every eighth row marks the delineation between categories. Draw lines all the way across the three columns between the 8th and 9th, 16th and 17th, and 24th and 25th rows. Count the number of checks in each category. The first group is D, the second is I, the third is S, and the fourth is C. These totals indicate the relative strength of each of the categories, at the time the student completed the checklist. (Remember that this could change for any given situation. If the student is having difficulty in one particular class, it would be worthwhile to complete the checklist again with that class in mind, just to see how things change.)

To obtain a pictogram of the student’s style, enter the highest and lowest scores on the grid. Calculate the average and graph each score by category. (This mathematical step is optional, but meets my personal commitment to visual input and organization! A layer of mean-median-mode or box-and-whiskers could be added for those even more compulsive than I am. Email me if you want directions.)

The next step is to identify the motivators which will inspire the student to devote sufficient effort in the process of learning. The “wants” are what the student expects in return for the endeavor and the “needs” are external stimuli and personal improvements needed to work more effectively.

Now that we have the edification provided by just one of many assessment devices, how can the information be put to constructive use? There is no avoiding the rigors of trial and error. But here are some practical approaches which have worked with the students at Tutoring Resources.

If your student is highly DOMINANT, he or she wants the freedom to make independent choices and the benefits of immediate feedback. If not kept busy, this student can find a plethora of ways to “push the envelop.” Expected outcomes should be clearly defined and guerdon awarded expeditiously. Checking the answer to a math problem immediately upon completion (look in the back of the book) is an example of timely feedback as well as a productive study strategy. Younger students might respond to checking off duties on a task list or daily “chips” for completed work. Added up at the end up at the end of a week, the "chips" can satisfy a desire for longer term gratification.

The INFLUENCER student could flourish in a group situation where his or her prowess can be recognized. The caution is to provide sufficient direction so group work does not regress into just play. Published Honor Roll lists are a form of reward for this student. “Refrigerator” recognition -- the A+ paper posted on the frig for the whole world to see and admire -- is a classic motivator for the Influencer. This student will appreciate Mom or Dad “checking” the work or proofing the essay, provided it is accompanied by a healthy dose of “good job” in appraisal.

STEADY students could benefit from predictability of scheduling but need to be reminded that there is an expected productivity outcome. An established time and/or place to complete homework is comforting for this student and presents the opportunity to set time limits and express approval when tasks are completed. Remembering that there was a History test today and asking how it went can open the doors of communication.

The high COMPLIANT student needs well-defined rules and predictability in order to self-assess results. Threats are rarely effective since they raise the risk level which the Compliant is trying to reduce. Encouragement is a strong, positive motivator which comes naturally to many parents who have adopted the mantra, “You can do it,” which can be heard frequently at almost every sports event. Goals for this student should be set in small steps in order to provide frequent recognition of success, and failure should be immediately mitigated so as not to inhibit further effort. Getting right back on the bike after a fall is an example of overcoming failure through subsequent success. Correcting errors on a test, especially when accompanied by the possibility of extra points, is a teacher’s paradigm for motivating the Compliant student.

No matter which category is paramount at this moment, on this day, in this situation, a combination of motivators should address the secondary and even tertiary styles that the student may exhibit. If YOU are the student, help you family, friends, advisors, confidants, and various significant others to be effective motivators by sharing with them the “wants” that have been identified here. They can support you in STUDYING SMARTER, NOT JUST HARDER!

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