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How to Motivate Students to Actually Do Homework and Reading

Below is the latest edition of the Towards Better Education guidance column. Here you can ask a question for a future column.


Reader question:

Dear Bonnie, What are your thoughts on student accountability? How do we get students to do pre-class work without giving everything a grade? – Searching for change

My husband Dave was in the driveway a few days ago, about to head somewhere with our two kids. I had just finished my elliptical exercise and he asked, “Are you glad you did it?” I was happy, but it didn’t start that way. The moves came before the impulse.

For 429 consecutive days, I exercised for at least thirty minutes, a routine boosted by a sense of accomplishment and my overall health. I was really happy to take the next step towards continuing my commitment. But I don’t count on the feeling that gets me moving most days. Instead, I rely on the power of habits that draw me into action, even when the way I feel doesn’t necessarily drive me. All too often, students test the same mindset about preparing for the classroom and we end up needing to help them create good habits that go beyond what they would normally show on their own.

James Clear describes the four components of our ingrained patterns in “Atomic Habits: An Easy, Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Habits.” The cues are the stimuli that we humans associate with some kind of reward. Cravings are the motives that motivate us to act. Responses are the behaviors or thoughts that we in turn produce, assuming that there is not much friction preventing them – and there are many reasons to produce them. Rewards are what we get when we take the intended action or think the intended idea.

Building a habit like the one you did for exercise involves both internal and external triggers for most people. It actually takes some de-learning, and some changes in approach, to create an environment that better encourages students to complete assigned activities. Educators first need to think about how we use degrees in our teaching — and then explore the kinds of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that exist and persist for our students.

Many of our students’ educational experiences have taught them to look for the rewards of a coefficient scale for their actions in the form of points or scores. In Susan Bloom’s book “Unrecognition: Why Student Ranking Undermines Learning (and What We Do, Instead),” we discover that when it comes to concerns about grade inflation:

She writes, “The problem is not that too many students get an As but too many students have been led to believe that the primary purpose of education is to get an As.”

Part of the reason students do not complete pre-class work is that they are conditioned to focus on extrinsic rewards in their education. Oftentimes it becomes a game of collecting as many points as possible, ideally designed to squeeze out any intrinsic motives that may have surfaced along the way.

So how do you get students to complete tasks that will help them participate better in the class session? Here are some techniques that have worked well for me specific to the context I inquired about.

There are two common concerns I encountered:

  • It takes too long for teachers to get grades, and that
  • Teachers wish students to do work before class without having to award points for their efforts.

First of all, there are ways that can help reduce grading time while still providing useful feedback to students. For example, teachers can strategically assign tasks which can be automatically graded or checked. When vocabulary is an important aspect of the class I’m teaching, I will sometimes set an auto-listed test that presents ten questions from a large bank of terms and allows students to repeat the test until they get the desired result. In other tasks, students are asked to take a screenshot of themselves playing a vocabulary-enhancing matching game.

In Online Minds: Effective Teaching with Technology, Michelle Miller encourages us not to feel that teachers should evaluate everything a student brings to one of our classes. In my case, I tend to watch every video that is submitted, or how do I learn each student’s pet names? But I watch videos twice as fast, and can peruse them relatively quickly. Sometimes I delegate part of the work to an assistant teacher.

The most common homework given to students in most classes is reading. To motivate this, I usually assign reading exercises and tests. First, I ask students to submit analog or numerical notes related to what they are reading. A common form I use is the 5-3-1 structure: they identify five main points that characterize them, three ways in which they can apply what they’ve read and one question they have as a catalyst for discussion for others reading the same passages. Second, I often have fewer than ten automatically categorized questions for a custom reading comprehension test. Finally, I have about five questions about Reasoning and Application as part of the reading test.

As for the complaint that students should do reading or any other prior work purely out of intrinsic motivation, I have this advice. In Leadership: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink notes that: “The goals people set for themselves and are dedicated to achieving mastery are usually healthy goals. But goals imposed by others—sales goals, quarterly revenue, standardized test scores, and so on—can It can sometimes have serious side effects.” It is worth thinking about ways we can allow students to be more self-directed to enhance self-motivation in their studies.

When I spoke with James Lange to teach on the Higher Education podcast, he shared the way he developed his thinking regarding motivation. He emphasized that the research shows that:

“We need those intrinsic motivators, and a lot of school motivators are extrinsic in the form of grades and grades and all these other things. We need to pull those intrinsic motivators in any way we can. Despite that, I have to say, for the past few years, while I’ve continued to look In this research and more and more thinking about this question, I come to believe that we actually need both intrinsic and extrinsic catalysts in order to be successful.”

Lang went on to describe how in pursuits like exercise, ideally, we’d be intrinsically motivated, but people often aren’t. Instead, they use social connections and external reminders of their accomplishments to bridge the gap between actions (actually going for a run) and rewards (realizing how great it feels after a workout). In this way, extrinsic and intrinsic motives can stimulate each other.

Another general recommendation on how to get students to not require as much extrinsic motivation is to consider alternatives to traditional degrees. In addition to the song “Ungrading” by Susan Bloom, I recommend the following:

Ranking for Growth: This collection of Substack posts by Robert Talbert and David Clark explores the challenges in the ways we tend to approach degrees in higher education and how we use alternative grading practices that focus on growth.

Uncategorize Twitter Thread: Curated by Jesse Stomel, This subject He has links to a lot of Jesse’s writing and talk on the subject. Rather than adopting “best practices,” he pleads with us to adopt what he called “necessary practices.”

How did you manage to keep your 429 day exercise streak? Partly, this is because I want to live longer and be more present to the ones I love. The intrinsic factors that motivate me are strong in the long run and depend on each other. However, when it comes to the daily discipline to keep going, it helps when I get that buzz on my wrist via my Apple Watch, and it tells me I can still meet my fitness goals for the day. When I look at an app that pulls out my streaks, but mocks me with what’s left to accomplish today to keep the momentum going, I end up doing the thing I don’t feel like doing at the moment to get the rewards of the bigger picture.

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