Motivation and comfort zones

I’ve noticed my students don’t seem to have a lot of motivation in science class. They are sometimes afraid they’ll make mistakes, and they’re often reluctant to try something new. What can I do to encourage more student engagement in learning?
—Donna, Wilmington, Delaware

At an inservice workshop I attended, teachers were discussing how their students didn’t want to learn. When the presenter asked what evidence teachers had for this statement, they responded, “Students don’t do homework” and “Students don’t do their work or pay attention in class.” The presenter posed the question, “Does a lack of compliance with your directions or a lack of interest in the activity mean that they have no motivation to learn science? These are the kids who have mastered video games and cell phones. They are certainly capable of learning, perhaps not what you want them to learn or in the way you require them to.”

Several archived Ms. Mentor posts addressed questions related to motivation and engagement:

  • Motivation. It seems like it’s getting harder to motivate students. What can we do?
  • Why do we have to learn this?  Whenever I start a new unit, some students consistently ask, “Why do we have to learn this?” How should I respond?
  • Improving student skills. My ninth-grade students are struggling with lab activities. For example, they don’t seem to know how to formulate a hypothesis or write a conclusion. When I asked them to graph the data, I saw lots of blank looks on their faces. What can I do?
  • Perseverance and failure. With all of the curricular demands and a focus on preparing for state exams, I am concerned that we do not create situations for students to persevere if they don’t succeed in their first attempts at experiments in science. How do we communicate the value of curiosity and perseverance to high school science students and the notion that repeated “failure” is common on the road to major breakthroughs?
  • Stretching the comfort zone. At our inservice last month, we learned several strategies for writing in science classes.  But when I tried one in my classroom, it went over like a lead balloon. What was I doing wrong?

At a workshop I facilitated, I asked teams of teachers to draw a picture of an engaged student. During the subsequent gallery walk, the results were interesting. Some had pictures of students carrying books, wearing a watch, or sitting at a desk. These “engaged” students were prepared for class, on time, and attentive. Other pictures showed students actively working with others, asking questions, or writing and drawing. What would your drawing look like?

We then discussed: Is it possible to be busy at a task but not really engaged in it? Is it possible to be engaged in something without being visibly busy? Hmmm.



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