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High school graduation rates continue to improve and remain on track to meet a national goal of 90 percent by 2020, according to the latest Building a Grad Nation report, released annually by a coalition of educational organizations.1 The graduation rate for the 2012-2013 school year hit 81.4 percent, the highest since states adopted a new method of calculating graduation rates in 2010. Advances by black and Hispanic students help account for this trend. However, national gains are distributed unevenly among school districts, and graduation rates remain unacceptably low in some areas for low-income, English-language learning and special education students.

Lack of motivation tops the list of obstacles discouraging students in these at-risk categories from completing their education, according to long-term research by organizations such as the National Research Council and George Washington University's Center on Education Policy.2 When students are struggling with motivation, their behavior falls into a few typical patterns reflecting some common underlying causes. By observing these patterns and adopting appropriate strategies, educators can help motivate at-risk students in ways that set high performance expectations without promoting discouragement.

Motivational Problem #1: "I Don't Know How to Do It"

When students lack the ability to complete assigned work, not knowing how to do the task can discourage them from trying. The missing skills may fall into one or more categories. In some cases, the student may be missing prerequisite reading or math skills. In other cases, the problem may be a lack of cognitive strategy, such as not knowing how to identify the main idea in a paragraph or not knowing how to translate a word problem into an algebraic equation. Other times, the student may be struggling with general issues such as organizational skills and time management that are not specific to any particular academic area.

When a student's lack of motivation stems from these types of missing skill sets, educators know that they can't proceed without progress being made. If you suspect a student is struggling with this type of issue, the first step is to verify that missing skills are indeed part of the problem. You can ascertain this by observing students trying to solve problems in class, asking them questions and reviewing their work.

After determining that a missing skill set is at issue, you can take a number of steps to correct the problem:

  • Make sure class materials are suited to the student's learning level
  • Help the student integrate new material with previous information by starting each class with a review of the last class and other relevant information, along with an explicit statement of the goals of the current lesson
  • Break new material into small, manageable chunks
  • Help students digest new concepts by using ample examples, explanations and instructions
  • Verify that students are following along by using frequent questions and group discussions
  • Give students opportunities to practice using new concepts and demonstrate their mastery of the material

Motivational Problem #2: "It's Too Much Work"

Sometimes, students have the skill set to complete a problem but still lack motivation due to a perception that too much work is involved. Symptoms of this problem include complaining, frequent seeking of assistance and procrastination.

If you observe these behaviors in a student who otherwise appears to possess sufficient skills, you can take several corrective measures:

  • Give students time in class to start assigned readings and homework assignments
  • Break larger assignments into smaller ones and teach students who may not have ever been taught to do this, as it is an important skill for future success
  • For more complex assignments such as term papers, provide a work schedule that breaks the assignment down into smaller tasks and time frames
  • Organize students into supportive study groups so they can help motivate each other

Motivational Problem #3: "It's Boring"

Sometimes, boredom is the culprit. Symptoms include talking to other students during class, reading outside material, texting and looking out the window during class.

If you observe these behaviors in students who are otherwise capable of doing their work, and it doesn't appear they are trying to avoid a task they perceive as too difficult, try these tactics:

  • Use u-shaped seating arrangements to promote engagement in group discussions
  • Tie lessons into topics that interest students and relate to their goals
  • Give assignments that allow students to make choices from a list of options
  • Include group activities that enable students to interact with their peers while working on the assignment
  • Keep the pace of the class brisk by using such strategies as giving quizzes as soon as the bell starts and avoiding periods of class where students are being non-productive

Motivational Problem #4: "What Do I Get out of It?"

Sometimes students do not see class work as intrinsically rewarding and are only motivated when completing an assignment is linked to extrinsic rewards. Students with this motivational issue often seek praise, peer recognition or other rewards as incentives to complete their work. If you observe a student who is otherwise capable of doing the work and is not intimidated by the class difficulty, but who still struggles with motivation while the rest of the class seems to find the class engaging, try these measures:

  • Praise the student when he or she performs a task well
  • Select desired behaviors to reward with incentives that will appeal to the student
  • Adjust rewards to the student's learning curve by rewarding basic performance at early stages of the learning process and shifting the focus to rewarding exceptional performance as the student masters basic skills

Motivational Problem #5: "I Can't Do It"

Some students may be capable of performing a task but still perceive themselves as incapable of handling it. Students with this problem tend to bog themselves down in negative talk with overly critical assessments of their performance, their teachers or their textbooks and tests, while failing to factor in mitigating variables such as how much time they put into preparation for a test. You can determine if students have this problem by getting them to talk about their perceived strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures and then checking whether their self-evaluation is overly critical. If you think students have this problem, take the following steps to help them develop a more realistic perception of their abilities:

  • Encourage students to question whether lack of ability is the real issue
  • When students complain about external factors such as teachers and test difficulty, draw their attention to internal factors that are under their control, such as how much time they choose to devote to homework and whether they take advantage of opportunities to seek help from the teacher
  • Help students who are upset about poor short-term performance see the long-term picture, reminding them of past successes and encouraging them that not all future class units will be as difficult

Motivational Problem #6: "I Don't Like the Teacher"

Sometimes student motivational problems can center around dislike of a teacher. Symptoms include avoidance of eye contact and conversation, grumbling, sarcasm and defiant behavior. If you notice this type of motivational problem, here are some steps you can take to correct it:

  • Praise students as frequently as possible for positive behavior
  • Set a goal of having at least three positive interactions with a student for every negative one
  • Strive for at least one positive interaction with a student per day
  • Hold periodic mini-conversations with students about positive nonacademic subjects of interest to them
  • Focus on desired positive outcomes when making requests and giving instructions
  • When discipline is necessary, apply the same standards all other students are expected to abide by without making it a personal confrontation that gives the impression of being motivated by a grudge against a particular student

Recommended for You: 8-Point Plan to Help Students Succeed Despite Personal Hardships

Resources: (1) 2015 Building a Grad Nation Report (2) Motivation Matters: 40% of High School Students Chronically Disengaged from School