What’s the problem: Learning or motivational?

iStock_000017270958XSmallOne of the most difficult tasks for a teacher is determining whether a child’s poor performance is due to a motivational or to a learning problem. In order for teachers to be able to more clearly ascertain the underlying causes of poor performance, Marilyn K. Rousseau (City Colelge of New York) and Claire L. Poulson (Queens College of the City University of New York) have suggested a way to systematically analyze a student’s performance.

Most teachers have students who, for some reason, cannot or will not complete work. Such non-performance is often accompanied by inappropriate behavior on the part of the student, which distracts the teacher from instruction.

Rousseau and Poulson believe it is often difficult to distinguish between learning problems and motivational problems and, therefore, it is all the more difficult to identify and implement appropriate remediation strategies. They believe that motivational problems are far more common than true learning problems.

In determining a course of action, teachers must decide if the child cannot do the work or will not do the work. Jumping to conclusions, they warn, can lead to inappropriate and, therefore, ineffective remediation.

Focus on academics first

Since a teacher’s time is limited, Rousseau and Poulson recommend that teachers concentrate on academics. By maintaining the focus of attention on academics, students naturally get attention for appropriate behavior and get the message that academics are important.

Rousseau and Poulson suggest that teachers break down a task into three parts: the presentation of materials and instruction, the student’s response (usually the work itself), and the teacher’s response (the consequences for the child). In this way, the teacher will know what student behavior he/she is reinforcing.

Rousseau and Poulson also recommend using a data-based method to distinguish between motivational problems and learning problems. They believe that only by using data-based analysis can appropriate remediation be determined.

Separating reinforcers

The first step in analyzing the poor performance of a student is to record the amount of work attempted and the percentage of that work which is correct. This record will establish a true picture of the student’s current performance. (The authors suggest making a graph of this data).

The second step is to identify possible reinforcers. For example, what does the student like to do? What motivates him/her? Free time? Helping the teacher? Social interaction with peers? By using one reinforcer at a time, the teacher will be able to note which reinforcer leads to an increase in the amount of work completed. For students with mild motivational problems, teacher attention and careful administration of effective reinforcers for completed work should improve student performance.

Next, the teacher should note whether the percentage of items the student completes correctly varies and, if it does vary, the teacher should consider the cause of the variation. If the amount of work correct increases in direct relation to the amount of work completed, then this suggests the problem is motivational and continued monitoring of work completed, together with appropriate reinforcement, should keep the student’s performance at an acceptable level.

Step three is used only when reinforcement for work completed does not simultaneously increase the amount of work that is correct. Rousseau and Poulson recommend that, at this stage, teachers begin reinforcing the student for the amount of work correct, rather than the amount of work completed. If the percentage of correct items increases to an acceptable level using this method, then no further intervention is needed since the student is evidently able to complete the work correctly when motivated to do so. Sometimes a student’s performance will fluctuate greatly and Rousseau and Poulson suggest that this usually indicates a motivational problem also.

If, after several types of reinforcers are tried, the percentage correct still does not increase, then a learning problem may exist. At this point, Rousseau and Poulson recommend that the teacher begin an error analysis to pinpoint specific skill deficits. If the teacher can identify the portion of a task which the student is doing incorrectly, lessons can be planned to remediate deficits in knowledge and/or skills.

“Motivation Problem or Learning Problem?” Teaching Exceptional Children Summer 1989, p. 18-19.

Published in ERN January/February 1990 Volume 3 Number 1


Editor’s Note: The procedure described by Rousseau and Poulson can help teachers look at student performance systematically and can help them distinguish between motivational and learning problems. This systematic analysis can help them clarify their options for purposes of trying to improve student performance. Teachers should bear in mind, however, that implicit in this behaviorist approach is the idea that student difficulties are either behavioral or learning problems. While this approach her merit, it does not take into account the fact that as a child gets older, these two factors become more difficult to separate and, indeed, are often found together. For example, children with chronic motivational problems which result in years of poor performance, often fail to gain the academic skills necessary to do grade level work later on. By the same token, children with learning problems often develop poor self-esteem or counterproductive attitudes towards school, which ultimately lead to a lack of motivation to work at unrewarding and difficult tasks. Therefore, although it may be easier to address one aspect of a complex problem at a time, teachers may want to bear in mind that both motivational and learning factors are often bound together, especially in upper elementary age children.

Also, Rousseau and Poulson assume that teachers will be able to find reinforcers appropriate for use in school which will motivate the student. However, use of reinforcers is complex and, as described in a previous report (see ERN March/April 1989 “Rewards & Student Motivation”), can have unexpected or even counterproductive effects.

Rousseau and Poulson do not suggest that teachers try to identify the cause(s) for student motivational problems. However, if the student’s lack of motivation has not been caused by a long-term learning problem, then identifying the reasons for poor motivation, in this editor’s opinion, can contribute to a more permanent resolution of the problem.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)