Many students begin the new school year with a renewed fervor of excitement about the start of a new opportunity to get better grades, be more organized, submit all their work, and be the best students they can be. Teachers create SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) lessons, and students define their goals in measurable achievement markers. However, as time goes on, student motivation starts to fade.
In an interview on the Huberman Lab podcast, Dr. Maya Shankar posits that people are highly motivated at the beginning of a goal and as the end of the goal approaches, yet in the middle, the motivation dwindles. Shankar calls this “the middle problem,” and nowhere is this more prevalent than with early high school students.
Exacerbating the middle problem is the fact that rewarding success actually undermines the process of shifting habits. We don’t want our students to get an A in our class and then revert to being struggling students. How do you keep them motivated in the middle months when the back-to-school thrill has worn off but the end isn’t yet in sight? Here are four strategies that can help build lifelong learners and develop mental endurance.
1. Close the Middle
If the middle is the problem, why not just get rid of it? As Shankar quips, “It’s mathematically impossible to eliminate middles.” However, we can control how long the middle lasts. If a student makes a goal to have straight As by the end of the year, the middle is months long. An alternative goal is to close the middle as much as possible, such as setting unit-based goals that only last a couple of weeks.
If a unit is two or three weeks long, teachers can help students establish a goal of completing the assignments in that unit. Students can study hard and focus on the end-of-unit assessment instead of the transcript grade that’s months away.
For many of my struggling students, setting unit-based goals is much more attainable. At the beginning of each unit, I’ll ask my students if they think they can realistically complete the next five to seven assignments and the assessment. Usually, they say yes. We are not looking at the end of the quarter or considering the semester, we are just looking at the next two weeks. Now, the middle is shorter, and the duration of motivation can carry well into the time it takes to achieve the goal.
2. reward the process
Even as we build intrinsic motivation, students need to be rewarded for their efforts along the way. I don’t love the idea of food or sweets being rewards for kids, so in my classroom, our reward is often about having class outside if the weather is nice. Students are inside all day, and even a shift in the environment is a reward. So sometimes, while I continue with a lesson, we just take it outside into the fresh air. By providing this at random intervals along the way, the students feel rewarded for their efforts.
3. Temptation Bundling
Because working hard to achieve goals often means discomfort and difficulty, Shankar suggests “pairing an unpleasant activity with an immediately rewarding, enjoyable activity.” The caveat is that the unpleasant activity is the only time that the pleasurable reward is used. This is vastly different from a reward for achieving a goal. The guiding principle here is that we start looking forward to working toward the goal because the work itself is associated with something positive.
In my classroom, I try to incorporate something new and enjoyable with each unit. In one unit I will have students work together to create a multimedia presentation on a short story and give them time to work together after the main lesson. This allows them to be social, collaborate, move around a bit, and work on the computer.
In the next unit, they will build a diorama to re-create the setting of a narrative poem that they work on with a partner, again, after the main lesson. The act of doing literary analysis can be a stressful, unpleasant activity for some students. Pairing it with social interaction, media, and creativity is enjoyable, and they look forward to that production aspect.
4. Create an Enjoyable Last Impression
Humans generally have a short-term memory when it comes to perceptions and sensation, and our overall impression is mostly influenced by how the experience ends. Thus, by lessening the discomfort or displeasure even a little at the end, the impression of the process will be more pleasant.
In the classroom, we can adjust our closure and exit slips to be something enjoyable, ending class on a positive note. Students often find grammar lessons grueling. However, you can end grammar lessons with a game. I write a few grammatically correct sentences on note cards, with one word on each note card, and then give each student a note card. We go outside or move the desks, and the students work together to organize themselves into grammatically correct sentences. It’s fun, and they laugh as they move around and direct each other, but the skills are setting in, and the grammar class ends with a positive impression.
When the day or lesson ends on a positive note, the feeling of enjoyment is the final impression. And when students hold that positive impression of the class, they generally will have higher interest and thus motivation to succeed. Often, the motivation wanes when the material becomes less enjoyable, but when the teacher works to keep the perception of the material or class positive, the students are more likely to maintain higher motivation through the middle problem.
Reframing the way that students set and work toward goals has had a real impact on my class. I also believe in goal redemption for students. Not all students will continue to achieve their goals, even if we follow the right protocol. A little grace and a lot of encouragement reinvigorates the goals and helps students build grit through redemption. When they are given multiple chances, they can build that intrinsic desire to achieve a life of learning—that’s the goal.