Why do I have to do this?

October 1, 2018


When a student does not want to...

Student motivation: an interesting topic indeed. Last week a student did not want to do an activity and asked: "why do we have to do this?" I was a bit surprised, I really thought the activity was interesting and useful.. 

Estimated time to read this article: 4 minutes

A kind kid, yet..

Last week I ended the lesson with a question, asking students to write down 2 words that they thought would summarize the lesson best, after which I asked them to make a sentence using those words.

One student, who is a great kid and never had any problems with motivation, looked at me with an angry face and started writing, obviously feeling forced to do something she did not like.

I was surprised this student had never before showed this type of behavior. I walked towards her desk and asked her why she was angry. She responded: "I just don't like to do this, this activity makes no sense, why do we have to do it?"

The strong emotional response was surprising, even her friends looked at her with little amazed because of her tone. I decided not to make too much of a fuss and told her I would be happy to explain to her why we did this activity when she could ask me in a nice way.

What did I do wrong?

This particular situation made me think about student motivation in general. I was certain this particular assigment cheched a lot of boxes concerning "a good task"

  • 1
    Students knew how much time they had to complete the task
  • 2
    Students knew what to do when they were done with the task
  • 3
    Students could express their own opinion and ideas, making the task more valuable to them
  • 4
    Students had to write down a sentence with words of their own choosing, making language output an important part of the task. I also scaffolded by first asking them to come up with words on their own
  • 5
    I checked for understanding and made sure everyone knew what to do

So, what did I do wrong?

I honestly did not know..

What I think might be a way to motivate students

Obviously I will not pretend I have the best solution ever, nor have I found it. I can however share what I think will work to increase motivation, next time I try to do something like this.

For starters, I think it should be absolutely clear why students have to do a certain task.

In this particular example, I did mention: "You will improve your language skills" but that goal is certainly not something students can identify with. I could have rephrased it to "I want to know if we agree on what is important this lesson" it might already be a bit more of a challenge for students.

Especially if the answers surprise you.

Another idea is to offer different options for a task, so students have a bit more freedom concerning their own learning. Again, in this particular example I could have asked them to come up with a third word to link the two words they came up with first, if they want to have a bit of a challenge. Or I could even have asked them: "I want to finish the lesson and check if we agree on the most important things of this lesson:  What activity would you like to do to achieve this?"

Key Take Away

Despite best intentions, teachers might 'force' their students to do certain tasks instead of motivating them. Providing a variety of tasks and making the objective clear can help motivate your students.

My result?

Before I forget: The student actually found me later that day, apologizing for her tone and behavior. She had some things going on in her personal life and realized she should not have spoken to me in that tone.  

I explained to her why we did the activity and she understood. 

Problem solved, but still I wonder: how often do students think "why do we have to do this" without saying it out loud? 

And maybe more importantly: how can we make sure this happens as little as possible?

I don't have the answer (yet), but with the ideas I mentioned I hope your can increase student motivation next time you ask them to do something!

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