Levels of analysis in student motivation

by on March 12th, 2006

In a recent USA Today column, Virginia high school English teacher Patrick Welsh addresses a phenomenon much lamented by many teachers at all levels: the apparent unwillingness of American students to work as hard as their teachers think they should. Welsh makes some good points, but his title and main point — For Once, Blame the Student — is too simplistic for my taste, especially now that my social psychology class is discussing cognitive biases, attribution theory, and other topics related to how people think about the causes of individual behavior.

The real question isn’t how to motivate students to work harder and get better grades, but how to work together toward changing the system that does them such a disservice.

Here’s a taste of Welsh’s column:

Last month,… the same familiar pattern leapt out at me. Kids who had emigrated from foreign countries — such as Shewit Giovanni from Ethiopia, Farah Ali from Guyana and Edgar Awumey from Ghana — often aced every test, while many of their U.S.-born classmates from upper-class homes with highly educated parents had a string of C’s and D’s…. What many of the American kids I taught did not have was the motivation, self-discipline or work ethic of the foreign-born kids……

A study released in December … suggests that the reason so many U.S. students are “falling short of their intellectual potential” is not “inadequate teachers, boring textbooks and large class sizes” and the rest of the usual litany cited by the so-called reformers — but “their failure to exercise self-discipline.” The sad fact is that in the USA, hard work on the part of students is no longer seen as a key factor in academic success. ….

When asked to identify the most important factors in their performance in math, the percentage of Japanese and Taiwanese students who answered “studying hard” was twice that of American students. American students named native intelligence, and some said the home environment. But a clear majority of U.S. students put the responsibility on their teachers. …. As my colleague … puts it: “Today, the teacher is supposed to be responsible for motivating the kid. If they don’t learn it is supposed to be our problem, not theirs.”

And, of course, busy parents guilt-ridden over the little time they spend with their kids are big subscribers to this theory…. Every year, I have had parents come in to argue about the grades I have given in my AP English classes. To me, my grades are far too generous; to middle-class parents, they are often an affront to their sense of entitlement….  When I have given C’s or D’s to bright middle-class kids who have done poor or mediocre work, some parents have accused me of destroying their children’s futures.

My own impression is that college students vary as much today as always. Many, even today, work hard and do excellent work. And we often forget that, back in those Good Old Days, students who remained unmotivated could strive simply for the respectable Gentleman’s C, while a running joke had it that women aimed not for a BA or BS but an Mrs. To the extent that those of us who ended up teaching were good students, we often overestimate how much work others were doing, though I do think it’s true that college students on average used to spend more time on their coursework than they do today. I remember reading once a comparison of course requirements from decade to decade, with the number of books per course going steadily down, along with the number and length of required papers and the shift from essay tests to multiple-choice.

Relevant to this change in expectations and motivation is the de facto extension of high school past 12th grade. When I grew up, ads in the subway warned us to finish high school if wanted a decent job; today, college is the baseline. I haven’t seen data comparing current reasons for going to college with those of a few decades ago, but I would guess it’s more true today that, as one of my students recently wrote in a comment on conformity and persuasion, “if someone asks another if they go to college, and the answer is no, they tend to give them an awkward glance.” Colleges and universities often do a poor job adjusting to these changed motivations.

Still, while colleges today have a more inclusive student body, Welsh focuses on the poor motivation and inflated expectations of middle- and upper-class high school students from educated families, the kind of AP-level students who, supposedly, are easier to teach. It is these families, apparently, who blame teachers when students produce mediocre work. I wonder if this attribution is new, overtaking the long-standing distinction Welsh notes in passing: American kids think success in math comes from greater intelligence (implying that hard work isn’t that important) in contrast to Japanese and Taiwanese students who attribute success to hard work (so that both low- and high-IQ students think studying hard is what really counts).

Teachers at every level who confront poor motivation and work habits are often at a loss when students expect good grades despite minimal effort, or when they think their minimal effort is superior and their barely passable work deserves an A, or when they think they should get an A or B for effort even if the actual work product is poor. Perhaps most often it’s easiest to blame the student, as Welsh does, because blaming the victim reflects the individualistic assumptions pervading American life. If you have a problem, it’s your fault. Deal with it.

What’s wrong with that? If a few lazy students here and there flunk out, maybe it makes sense to penalize them for their own inadequate efforts and leave it at that. But this response doesn’t explain why hundreds of kids in the same school, or millions across the country, act the same way. It’s easier for a teacher to tell students to shape up or flunk out than to reassess whether the school makes it possible, for example, to work with students in ways that might be more interesting and motivating. And looking at the problem from a school or district issue is easier than looking at the economic, cultural, and other institutions that lead students to behave the way they do.

Like Welsh, I have too many students who don’t put in the work I’d like them to. They don’t think it’s important or interesting or necessary, or they’re taking too many classes at once, or they have jobs that leave them little time, or they don’t believe me or don’t care when I tell them their writing doesn’t meet college standards. In a social psychology class we can talk about attributions for success and the causes of behavior and the different political and policy implications of blaming the student, blaming the teacher, and blaming broader societal institutions and assumptions — but even this discussion is hampered by lack of student preparation.

So in the end I, too, resort to inadequate and wrongly directed individual-level responses. Sometimes I get annoyed at students who don’t seem interested in whatever wisdom I like to think I can offer. More often — perhaps because I’m teaching one course part-time after years without teaching, and so I still find the problem more intriguing than deadening –  I wish I had the knowledge and skills and energy to do a better job.

Realizing that so many teachers and students engage in this same dynamic every day helps me deflect some of my own self-blame, but that doesn’t really change what goes on in class. Real change is not something that can be resolved on a class-by-class, student-by-student basis. It will only be fixed if we recognize the broader economic and political forces that have led us to where we are, and if students, teachers, parents, and others organize to do something about it.


Dennis Fox is emeritus associate professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. This semester he is an adjunct instructor in the Boston area.

Dennis Fox