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The Five Questions Our Students Are Asking, All the Time

By Dave Stuart Jr.

All of our students, throughout the school year and especially at the start, are asking five questions. The level of motivation they'll bring to their work in our rooms isn't set in stone on Day One, or on Day 100. Instead, student motivation ebbs and flows based on their answers to these five questions.

1. Do I have a good teacher?

This is the question at the heart of the Credibility belief, and our kids are asking it on more than just the first day of school. It's hardly ever a conscious question, and it's meshed together with other Credibility questions, like:

  • Can this teacher take me to the next level?
  • Can she help me get ready for “real life”?
  • Is he going to be able to teach someone like me with my learning history?
  • Does she actually care about her job or is it just a paycheck?
  • Does he care about who I am as a person?
  • Is she real or just faking it?

Teacher credibility has one of the highest effect sizes in John Hattie's Visible Learning meta-analysis. Here are some ways to build it, and here are some ways to undermine it. (I just finished filming an entire professional development module on teacher credibility, for the all-online, schedule-friendly PD I'm making. If you'd like, get on the waitlist here.)

2. Does the work we do in here matter?

This is the Value belief. When we convince our students that we're Credible, we have an “in” to helping them value the work of our discipline. Just remember, though: cultivating a hardy Value belief in our kids depends on far more than just giving them some reasons now and then about why history or math matters. Constantly, our kids are evaluating the work we ask them to do, asking things like:

  • Is it worth my time?
  • Should I care about it?
  • Is it worth doing this [reading, writing, arguing, exercising] instead of getting on my phone right now and keeping my Crackchat streak alive?
  • Does this class actually relate to what I want to do in life, to the things I'm interested in?

Value, like all the beliefs, is tricky. But it's also fascinating. Teaching is a cool job because we get to experiment with Value cultivation every day. And our kids are required by law to come to our class and be our guinea pigs. It's awesome. 🙂

Here's a simple pop-up debate that you can do in any class to practice argument and cultivate Value, and here's an expectancy-value exercise.

3. Is my effort going to make a difference?

This is the Effort belief. Hard work is hard, so us human beings typically need to believe it's going to pay off if we're going to do it in the first place. If I just believe that, no matter what, I'll never do 100 push-ups, then guess what? I probably won't do a single push-up today. Or, to bring it closer to home, if I think that Izzy's going to remain apathetic about schooling no matter what I say to her, then I'm probably not going to try. It's not because I'm evil or lazy — it's because beliefs drive my behavior.

The kids in your room might not put forth effort because they may not be sensing good answers to their Effort questions, like:

  • If I try hard, will I be able to memorize these math facts — or will I still be stuck where I am, a slave to my calculator?
  • Will Shakespeare ever make sense to me, even if I ask questions and use the glossary and listen to my teacher?
  • If I read today's article of the week, am I really going to understand the world better — or will I just be more confused?

To help my students believe in the value of effort, I create small wins early and build from there. Here's an example of a “small wins” exercise around memorization. That exercise also helps with questions our students have around the Efficacy belief — let's look at that next.

4. Can I succeed at this?

I've been talking with some of my students lately who are certain of the fact that they're going to transfer to the alternative high school as soon as they rack up enough failed classes. When I ask them why they're so bent on this, they say, “I can't learn in this high school.” This is the Efficacy belief's opposite: I'm sure that I will fail.

The trick with efficacy is that the way our kids define “success” varies wildly. For some, success is passing the course with a D-. For others, only a 93% or above will do. And for others, success has nothing to do with school. Helping my kids define success is

  • Can I actually pass this class?
  • Can I graduate on time?
  • Can I lead a flourishing life someday?

5. Do I belong here? Do people like me do work like this?

The Belonging belief is about seeing a fit between two ideas:

  1. Who I am/can become, and
  2. What this setting (with its people, policies, culture) allows/can allow

Here are unconscious questions through which our kids filter everyday experiences in our classrooms:

  • Do people like me belong in classes like this?
  • Do people like me act like the people in this class act?
  • Does anyone here notice me?
  • Is this class or school a setting in which I want to belong?*

Students' sense of their belonging in our classes and schools can be affected by anything from sharing a birthday with someone else to experiencing moments of genuine connection with you.

Note from Dave: I've made an all online, schedule-friendly professional development course on student motivation. All the details, including how to register, are here.

*Thanks to Gregory Walton and Shannon Brady for their “The Many Questions of Belonging” chapter in Handbook of Competence and Motivation: Theory and Application, Second Edition (Edited by Andrew J. Elliot, Carol S. Dweck, and David S. Yeager; published by Guilford Press, 2017). I accessed it here.

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