Increasing motivation in low-achieving students

iStock_000021006935XSmallThe keys to motivation have always intrigued educators. Why do some students seek out and stick to challenging learning opportunities while others prefer quick, routine tasks? A body of research over the last decade has focused on understanding individual differences in motivation and has examined ways to structure classrooms to increase motivation and promote learning.

Traditional classroom structures center on an ability-based system where each student’s achievement is compared to others’ and measured by grades. An increasing body of research indicates that a more student-centered approach in a noncompetitive classroom setting can increase intrinsic motivation, while grades can actually decrease it. In one study, student-centered goals, used over three days, led to greater effectiveness, skill and persistence. In the longest experimental study so far, lasting for one school year, those in experimental classrooms using a student-centered approach showed more positive attitudes to school, had higher self-concepts, preferred more challenging work and showed more intrinsic motivation than students in the control group Peabody College Study

In a recent study, researchers examined the effect of using the noncompetitive approach on low-achieving students with and without learning disabilities in mathematics class. The researchers were Lynn and Doug Fuch, Kathy Karns, Carol L. Hamlett, Michelle Katzaroff and Suzann Dutka, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. In classes where students had a role in setting their own learning goals, students increased their efforts and chose more challenging and more varied learning topics than students in a control group. Low-achieving students without disabilities achieved more in the noncompetitive classes, but the low achievers with disabilities did not.

Forty urban classrooms in grades 2-4 were randomly assigned to three groups–one control group and two experimental groups. All 40 teachers used the same basal program, Mathematics Plus, which focuses on solving everyday life problems rather than on teaching skills by rote. All students took a math test at the beginning of the year. In each class, teachers identified two low-achieving students without learning disabilities whose math performance was at the bottom of the class, and two students with learning disabilities whose math performance was at the bottom of the class.

The control group followed its usual grading procedures in math class. The experimental teachers used two 35-minute sessions each week, to teach highly structured learning strategies that encouraged interaction with and between students. Each week students in the experimental groups were tested and the results were entered in a software program for teachers and students to discuss. Using charts and graphs, students assessed how well they were doing in comparison to their past performance and developed ways to improve their progress over a period of four months. Teachers followed a set procedure for approaching each type of problem. They gave detailed responses for praising correct answers or modeling how to redo an incorrect solution.

Teachers also trained children in the experimental classes to work as tutors for one another. Then, a month after the introduction of these learning strategies, students were taught how to place problem situations in context, to represent quantities with physical material or symbols, and to discuss strategies to solve problems.

In half the experimental classes, teachers added several other features designed to help students to become more purposeful and directed in their learning. The students kept a “Hot Math” chart, a large thermometer which they filled in to show the peak of their performance. Using a series of five smaller thermometers, they also kept track of their progress on five skills–whether these were mastered, partially mastered or not mastered. Teachers also recognized improvement and progress, spotlighting all students for improvement at some point during the experimental period.

Students were given some choices in what they studied. Every two weeks, on the basis of their performance rather than their abilities, they selected two skills to focus upon. Responsibility and independence were emphasized. Errors were viewed as opportunities for learning. As for evaluation, grades, which were kept private, were based on individual improvement, progress and mastery 


Students in both experimental groups reported positive experiences. Both low achievers without disabilities and low achievers with learning disabilities reported that the feedback sessions evoked feelings of excitement and nervousness more than sadness. The experimental group’s Hot Math charts seemed to make those children more interested in learning and helped them identify content for follow-up sessions. The self-directed nature of the lessons, they reported, facilitated learning, and the content, as a result, was more challenging than in the non-experimental classes. The authors say that the experiment succeeded at least in “creating a learning environment in which students seek challenging learning opportunities.”

Those in experimental group 2, with greater focus on self-assessment, had some success in improving achievement. For low achievers without disabilities, the greater effort produced dramatically more learning. However, the increased efforts of low-achieving children with learning disabilities did not translate to higher achievement.

The researchers targeted low achievers because these students so often experience repeated failure and negative feedback in the traditional ability-centered grading system. A more student-centered approach can counteract the phenomenon of “learned helplessness” that comes from the cycle of failure.

There were some limitations to the study. Research associates, hired to ensure the accuracy of the experimental approach, were present when teachers trained students and provided feedback, which altered the regular class environment. Also, teachers rated effort and intrinsic motivation, and they may have tended to rate students in the experimental groups higher as a result of their participation. And finally, gender and ethnic differences were not factored in.

This study, however, is significant in showing that a more student-centered approach can enhance students’ learning by increasing their effort, as well as the challenge and variety of topics in the classroom. It adds insights into learning disabilities, and should help teachers and administrators design more effective ways to bolster the motivation of low achievers. Future research could examine the failure of the students with learning disabilities to achieve, look at the effects of gender and ethnicity, and explore ways to refine learning strategies that would better motivate learning-disabled students.

“Effects of Task-Focused Goals on Low-Achieving Students With and Without Learning Disabilities, Lynn Fuchs, et al., American Educational Research Journal, September 21, 1997, Volume 34, pp. 513-543. 

One Response to “Increasing motivation in low-achieving students”

  1. Michele

    I found this to be a very interesting read. Currently I am in the process of doing informal research to find ways to improve student performance and discipline


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