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Understanding Ways of Motivating Resistant Students to Learning:
From Theory to practice

James Mbuva
National University


      This study investigates about Understanding Ways of Motivating Resistant Students to Learning: From Theory to Practice. The major questions examined in this study include: 1) What is motivating, learning, and resistant? 2) What does resistance to learning do to one’s teaching? 3) What are the reasons why students might be resistant to learning? 4) What are the possible solutions to motivating resistant students to learning? 5) What is the role of wise leadership and intrinsic motivation in motivating resistant students to learning?
     Answers to these questions will provide guidance to educators might have had problems in teaching students who are unwilling to learn. In most cases, blame is placed on students that they do not want to learn; but it is the goal of this study to strengthen the teacher by providing varied perspectives in the process of bringing informed teaching which is geared at motivating all students to learn.
     It is befitting to advance that this study was born from dialoguing with teacher candidates who need not only subject matter and pedagogical competencies, but also who need very seriously to develop classroom management and motivation competencies. These new teachers find it hard to cope with day’s work in an environment where source of chaos in the classroom may be caused by students who are unwilling to learn. Certainly, coupled with these competencies is the need for schools to create learning communities where teachers, students, and parents work together; for the purpose of enhancing effective teaching and learning in the classroom (Levin, et al., 1995). I hope that this study will be an addition to the tools which could enhance teacher effectiveness in the classroom.

The Meaning of Motivation, Learning, and Resistant

     According to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, motivation means “the intention of achieving a goal, leading to goal-directed behavior. Some human activity seems to be best explained by postulating an inner directing drive;” whereas, learning is “the process by which a relatively lasting change in potential behavior occurs as a result of practice or experience” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2005; Encarta Dictionary: English [North American]). On the other hand, resistant means having “a force that tends to oppose, or retard motion,” “to withstand,” “oppose actively, and “fighting against” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Agnes, 1999, p.549).
     Based on the above understanding of motivation, learning and resistant, teaching should be goal based, aimed at changing behavior, and establishing lasting learning experiences. Teachers should also establish positive ways of breaking walls of resistant learners by “giving a reason to act,” creating “enthusiasm” in the teaching and learning processes, and tapping into “forces determining behavior,” such as “biological, emotional, cognitive, or social forces that activate and direct behavior” (Encarta Dictionary: English [North America]).

What resistance to learning does to your teaching

  1. It undermines the morale of your class,
  2. It saps your spirit, and
  3. It results in student failure and discouragement. (Gross, Motivating Resistant Students)
    What are the reasons why teachers don’t deal with resistant students’ issues?
The reason is personal in the sense that these resistant “threaten OUR self-image as creative, stimulating, successful teachers;” while in fact if we avoid dealing with the problem “we ourselves resist learning – learning how to solve this problem.” (Gross, Motivating Resistant Students).
The Reasons why students might be resistant to learning
     There are so varied causes for resistance to learning; which may range from parent divorce, anger, self esteem, attention deficit, disinterest, peer pressure, depression, suicide, and drug related issues.
After interviewing a group of students, they generally indicated that they resist learning because of reasons ranging from personal, institutional, financial, physical, boring teaching, students finding the subject matter too hard for them, distractions from peers, no desire to learn, teachers giving up on students, tired students due to work, mere laziness, varied room temperatures, and teacher unprepared ness, etc.
     Gross believes that we have 10% of resistant students and 90% of willing to learn students. He articulates that the causes for resistance,
May range from staggering life-problems such as housing, parenting, or employment, to tragic deficits in basic skills, to psychological impediments such as having ‘learned’ that if they keep their mouths shut the teacher will ‘pass them along’ to the next class. Students with these problems need help, but YOU may not be able to provide what they need while still fulfilling your responsibility to the rest of the class which is ready to learn” (Gross, Motivating Resistant Students).
     So how can you address the resistance to learning on the part of the 90% of teachable students?

Gross’ possible solutions of motivating learners

Six Questions
     Every educator desires to have solutions to the problem of motivating learners, especially those who resist learning. Gross’ suggests that educators must ask the following “six question to identify the causes of resistance to learning -- whether it’s for a single student or for an entire class.”

  1. What can I do to establish a positive learning ATTITUDE?
  2. How can I best meet the NEEDS of my learners?
  3. What about this learning will continuously STIMULATE the learner(s)?
  4. How is the EMOTIONAL CLIMATE?
  5. How does this learning increase or affirm the learner’s feelings of COMPETENCE?
  6. What is the REINFORCEMENT for this learning?

     In applying the above questions to learning situations, Gross suggests that,
The first two (attitude and needs) require your attention at the beginning of any learning process (whether it’s a single lecture or a term-long course). The second two (stimulation and emotion) come into play in the middle of the sequence. The final two (competence and reinforcement) help you bring the learning to a successful culmination. The reason these six issues need to be addressed is that they are the ones that matter to almost all your students. (Gross, Motivating Resistant Learners)

Davis’ Possible Strategies of Motivating Learners

Enhance Students’ Self-Motivation
     Davis (1999) from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that educators should “identify those aspects of the teaching situation that enhance students' self-motivation;” and these include:

  • Giving frequent, early, positive feedback that supports students' beliefs that they can do well.
  • Ensuring opportunities for students' success by assigning tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult.
  • Helping students to find personal meaning and value in the material.
  • Creating an atmosphere that is open and positive.
  • Helping students feel that they are valued members of a learning community. (Lewis, 2006)

General Strategies

  1. Capitalize on students’ existing needs.
  2. Make students active participants.
  3. Ask students to analyze what makes their classes more or less “motivating.” In this regard, Davis illustrates that Sass’s study of 1989 demonstrates that there are eight characteristics of “major contributors to student motivation;” which include: Instructor's enthusiasm; relevance of the material; organization of the course; appropriate difficulty level of the material; active involvement of students; variety; rapport between teacher and students; use of appropriate, concrete, and understandable examples (Davis, 1999; Lewis, 2006).
Incorporate Instructional Behaviors That Motivate Students
     Irrefutably, good teaching and learning will embrace a common behavior which fosters motivation and conducive learning environment in the learning centers. These specific instructional behaviors that motivate students include:
  1. Hold high but realistic expectations for your students.
  2. Help students set achievable goals for themselves.
  3. Tell students what they need to do to succeed in your course.
  4. Strengthen students’ self motivation.
  5. Avoid creating intense competition among your students.
  6. Be enthusiastic about your subject (Davis, 1999; Lewis, 2006).
Structure the course to Motivate Students
     Many of the students I have talked to share that the reasons why a course is not exciting, thus motivating is because of a bad structure. Teachers need to structure their courses in such a way that students are motivated by:
  1. Working from students’ strengths and interests.
  2. When possible, letting students have say in choosing what will be studied.
  3. Increasing the difficulty of the material as the semester progresses.
  4. Vary your teaching methods to include: debates, role playing, brain storming, discussion, demonstrations, case studies, audiovisual presentations, guest speakers (Davis, 1999; Vaughn, 1995; Lewis, 2006).
Deemphasize Grades
     Teachers who emphasize on grades before or in the middle of their teaching they hurt the whole process learning; because students will always be thinking about, what is it for me in this class. Hence, deemphasizing grades is one of the most effective ways of motivating students; and we achieve this by:
  1. Emphasizing mastery and learning rather than grades.
  2. Design tests that encourage the kind of learning you want students to achieve.
  3. Avoid using grades as threats (Davis, 1999; Lewis, 2006)
Motivate Students by Responding to their Work
     Certainly, motivating students by responding to their work will lower students’ anxiety level in your classroom. It may be true that one of the reasons why students complain about most of our k-12 and college teachers is because they have poor habit of responding to students’ assignments and questions. Teachers can respond to students’ work by:
  1. Giving students feedback as quickly as possible.
  2. Rewarding success.
  3. Introducing students to the good work done by their peers.
  4. Being specific when giving negative feedback.
  5. Avoid demeaning comments.
  6. Avoid giving in to students’ pleas for “the answer” for homework problems (Davis, 1999; Lewis, 2006).
Motivate Students to do Reading
     Reading is very vital in teaching and learning. Teachers can effectively teach if students know the course content before the class; whereas, students can effectively participate in the process of learning by having prior reading. Educators can motivate their students to do reading by:
  1. Assigning the reading at least two sessions before it will be discussed.
  2. Assign study questions.
  3. If your class is small, have your students turn in brief notes on the days reading that they can use during exams.
  4. Ask students to write a one-word journal, or a one-word sentence.
  5. Ask non-threatening questions about the reading.
  6. Use class time as reading period.
  7. Prepare exam question on undiscussed readings.
  8. Give a written assignment to those students who have not done the reading (Davis, 1999; Scholarly Instructor, 2005; Vaughn, 1995; Renaissance Learning, 2006).

The Role of Wise Leadership and Intrinsic Motivation
in Motivating Resistant Students to Learning

Wise Leadership
     Certainly, motivation needs wise leadership and cultivation of intrinsic motivation in students. For motivation to take place, educators must ask a very vital question, what is the backbone of motivation? In order to motivate students, among other things, a healthy, and a free learning environment must be created. This environment is what we call school culture (Johnson, 1987). If school culture is the backbone of motivation in our schools, what does this culture look like?

  1. It fosters motivation.
  2. It is where academic success and the motivation to learn is expected, respected, and rewarded.
  3. It is where district superintendents and principals persuade teachers, students, parents, school boards and staff that established goals for motivation to learn and academic achievement are desirable, achievable, and sustainable.
  4. Every educator is concerned about motivation (Rencheler, 1992, p.3; Huddle, 1984).
Unquestionably, the role of principal’s in K-12 education is very crucial in a successful school culture. School principals are the instrumentality through which motivation permeates among teachers, students and parents. As school administrators, humanitarians, program managers, and systematic problem solvers, principals should:
  1. Desire to run a “smooth ship.”
  2. Focus primarily on goals that cultivate good interpersonal relations, especially among school staff.
  3. Perceive interpersonal relations as a venue for achieving school-level goals that stress educational achievement.
  4. Become devoted to “legitimate, comprehensive set of goals for students, and seek out the most effective means for their achievement” (Rencheler, 1992, p.5; Huddle, 1984; Leithwood & Montgomery, 19984).
Cultivation of Intrinsic Motivation
     While extrinsic motivation through rewards is of rewards is of great value, teachers need to cultivate intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation should be instilled in students from P-12, and adult learners in colleges and universities; because schools mission should be to educate and prepare life-long learners who will pass on education to younger generations; even when their teachers are long out of the picture (Anderson & Maehr, 1994).
     It should be the educator’s goal to not rest until every learner is motivated and has been adequately educated; because every student has the right to learn and that “Schools today are expected to provide all students the opportunity to learn the skills for mathematics, science, English language, arts, social science, geography, civics, and economics (Johnson, et al. 2005; Darling-Harmmon, 2001).
     In order to foster intrinsic motivation, educators should consider the following perspectives.
  1. Competency motivation. Both students and teaches need to have a feeling of efficacy and success.
  2. Curiosity. Teaches and students a innately curious about novel events and activities that are somewhat discrepant with their expectations.
  3. Autonomy. Teachers and students have “a natural need to feel self-determining.” They believe that they are engaging in activities by their own willpower.
  4. Internalize Motivation. Teachers and students engage in learning activities not out of external reinforcement, but because they value academic work and success (Rencheller, 1992, p.10; Stipek, 1988).


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