Getting Students to Do Their Best

After my classes today, I started thinking about this issue, of how to encourage students to not just do the bare minimum, but to go beyond that and to do their very best on any given task.  In theory, grades should do that, I guess, but I don’t think it always does, and in classes like my middle school ones, where I have a set of minimum standards, most kids get A’s pretty easily. 

An example.  My 6th graders are using Google Sites to create web sites.  Over the last few weeks, we’ve gathered some of the artifacts, written paragraphs, even conducted surveys for graphs to include.  We are now in the process of putting it all together into a cohesive web site.  We have just a couple of class periods left, but it’s actually a fair amount of time.  I had a couple of students say, halfway through today’s class, “I’m done.”  Yes, they have most of the elements I asked for, but they only just have them.  Meanwhile other students are exploring gadgets, and including multiple pages, and finding links and are clearly going to work up until the very last second.  This isn’t the only class where this kind of thing happens.  I’m trying to figure out how I can get the “early finishers” to appreciate that putting more effort into something and working during the alloted time (instead of playing a game) is a good idea.

I think this is related somewhat to something Mark Guzdial pointed out in his blog today about teaching students “grit.”  He was referring to a NY Times article that explores the character traits of students who are successful.  It turns out that it’s not the straight A students, always, who succeed:

 the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence

For some reason, I think that the students in my classes who push themselves, and who explore areas beyond what I’ve explained are the ones who fall into this category.  There’s something about their willingness to take risks, to mess up, and to learn from that in order to get their best work done.  I don’t think all of my “early finishers” are necessarily lazy.  They simply do what they’re told and no more.  I’m pretty sure I remember doing that myself sometimes.

What I’m talking about is not the high-pressure, jump through all the hoops kind of process that many students participate in, but a kind of pride in their work, whether it gets an A or not.  Because there are no grades in life, and I want my students (and my own kids, of course) to focus on doing their best not on some arbitrary grade.

2 Replies to “Getting Students to Do Their Best”

  1. I’m intrigued by this question, too. Some people who will not be motivated to do more than what is required to reach some goal (get the grade, finish the class, finish the work). Sometimes people choose that strategy because they want to invest their energy and effort elsewhere. So, they finish what’s required in one class but spend time going beyond in other classes. Sometimes they are just “lazy” — they aren’t interested in producing their best work because of internal standards. These two groups of people are different: one group lacks internal motivation; the other has it, just not for the activity you’re trying to get them to complete. In real life, that might mean raising the standards to get better quality work, if that’s what you need.

    In education, though, you’re not particularly interested in the work they actually produce — you just want to teach them to try their best, and, hopefully, teach them to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, and to learn how much they can accomplish if they try harder. Some kids, I presume, recognize the artificiality of that construct — they know what they do won’t be useful. For that kind of kid, I think that potentially making the activity of value in some way (could they build a web site for their family, or their club, or some other group that will actually use it?) might help.

    For others, maybe external motivation (praise, grades, etc.) will teach the the value of the work, eventually turning it into internal motivation. I think we currently undervalue that in progressive education — the idea that some kids will be motivated by external rewards or pressure, but will learn what they can do through that motivation.

    For the group that just chooses to devote their energies differently — well I’m sympathetic. I think we all have a tendency to see the activity we’re enjoying as the one that kids should “do their best” at. And it’s possible that the violinist who doesn’t want to devote much energy to the website should just be let be. (Though it does seem like you should be able to require them to work for the period that they are in your class, even if they’re “done.”)

  2. Maybe you can show them a product comparison to illustrate the difference between “good enough” and “insanely great. Perfect example – an off brand mp3 player (Coby, Sansa, etc…) versus an iPod. What did the engineer behind each product hope to accomplish and what was their end reward?


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