top of page

Adding Motivation to Mastery

Beyond Weaning

Our focus over the past several segments has been on the prevention of classroom discipline problems. First, we looked at eliminating learned helplessness during Guided Practice by replacing the tutoring of helpless handraisers with efficient prompts of 5-10 seconds duration. Second, we looked at eliminating the need for most corrective feedback by creating mastery prior to Guided Practice through Say, See, Do Teaching with adequate Structured Practice.

As we mentioned at the end of our last segment, by setting ourselves free from servicing helpless handraisers during Guided Practice, we place ourselves in a position to reap dividends that were previously out of reach. The first such dividend is the purposeful management of motivation.

Why Should I?

How do you motivate a student who simply does not care? Gaining leverage over student motivation is one of the most vexing issues of classroom management that faces any teacher.

The question in the student’s mind that underlies the topic of motivation is, “Why should I?” If you can successfully answer that question, you can get work from an otherwise unmotivated student. If you cannot come up with a good answer to that question, you get nothing.

Answers to the question, “Why should I?” have a collective and generic name. They are called incentives. A successful teacher must be a skillful manager of classroom incentives.

An incentive is a reinforcer. By definition it generates work. It is not to be confused with the term “reward.” A reward may or may not function as a reinforcer in the classroom depending on a given student’s willingness to work for it.

Over the past three decades education has been guilty of the profligate use of rewards in the classroom to the point where they have gotten a bad name. But, you cannot turn your back on incentives. You must deal with the question, “Why should I?” one way or another.

Incentives are Everywhere

Almost any social interaction has incentive properties. If you simply make eye contact with the person speaking to you, you provide an incentive for them to continue speaking.

In this segment we continue our focus on the management of Guided Practice. How do you structure work during Guided Practice? Whatever you do will constitute an incentive system for building work habits – either good or bad - in your students.

If, for example, you have the students work until the bell rings, you have created a dawdling incentive. Why should students knock themselves out doing the assignment? If there is no goal in sight other than endless work, many students will slow down and expand the work to fill the time. The only students who will work hard are the ones with an internalized work ethic that is impervious to your classroom management practices.

If, on the other hand, you provide a goal, a reinforcing activity which the students receive upon completion of the assignment – but without checking the work first - you have created a speed incentive. Many students will say to themselves, “the quicker I finish this stuff, the sooner I can have some fun.” Once again, the only students who will slow down and be conscientious are the ones with an internalized work ethic that is impervious to your classroom management practices.

If you want to train students to work hard while being conscientious, you must check the work as it is being done so that students can only receive the incentive when they work to your standards. For this reason, the technology of incentive management for classroom assignments hinges upon contemporaneous work check.

Free to Check Work During Guided Practice

All of the previous articles dealing with the weaning of helpless handraisers and the creation of mastery prior to Guided Practice lay the groundwork for the management of motivation. We might characterize these segments as, “Everything in the world you can possibly do to leave yourself unemployed during Guided Practice.”

Once you are unemployed during Guided Practice, you can then ask yourself, “What more important function am I now free to perform?” That function is checking work during Guided Practice as it is being done.

Let’s use math as our simple case for conceptualizing management practices. Let’s imagine that, due to Say, See, Do Teaching and adequate Structured Practice, your students can do the problems in today’s lesson “with one eye closed” before they transition to Guided Practice. If they need help during Guided Practice, they will get five seconds of your time as you point out a critical feature in your Visual Instructional Plan.

Now, imagine yourself working the crowd with an answer key in hand checking work as it is being done. You are, in effect, moving paper grading forward in time from this evening to Guided Practice. Freeing up your evening is only one benefit. The greater benefit is your ability to employ a Criterion of Mastery.

Criterion of Mastery

Every learning experiment must have a Criterion of Mastery, and a lesson is simply a learning experiment with teaching as the independent variable and learning as the dependent variable. A Criterion of Mastery is your operational definition of success at learning. When you reach the Criterion of Mastery, you can terminate the experiment.

A Criterion of Mastery is stated in terms of consecutive correct performances. It is not stated as a percentage. Keep in mind that an 80% success rate is, in fact, a 20% error rate – a level of performance which is incompatible with any meaningful definition of excellence or mastery.

A Criterion of Mastery should be sensible and practical. Most criteria of mastery for classroom assignments fall between the numbers 4 and 10. It is a judgment call on your part concerning the number of repetitions of a skill that are useful beyond Structured Practice before you start “beating it to death.”

Using a Criterion of Mastery in the Classroom

In the previous installment I described Say, See, Do Teaching and Structured Practice as it occurred every day during my grade school years. Imagine, once again, a math lesson. My teacher would send the class to the board where we would slowly walk through the first example one step at a time with the teacher continuously checking our work. Then we would walk through 3 or 4 more examples in the same way, picking up the pace as we went, so that, by the time we took our seats at the end of Structured Practice, correct performance was nearly second nature.

Now, listen to my teacher giving the transition to Guided Practice.

“Class, would you please open your books to page 173, and look at the practice set at the top of the page. As you can see, we have done problems 1 – 4 at the board. Would you please write “4C” at the top of your papers as a reminder that we have done the first four problems correctly?

“Let’s start with problem number 5, class. I will be coming around to check your work. When you get five in a row correct, I will excuse you to work on your project.”

“Projects” as a Part of Classroom Life

My teachers were big on projects. We always had art projects or science projects to work on if we finished early. In addition to being “sponge activities,” they functioned as incentives. My sixth grade teacher, Miss Bakey, had us bring a shoebox from home on which we printed our names. We took one whole class period to choose a science project and collect the supplies and materials needed for it. We placed the materials in our “project boxes” and lined them up on the shelf that ran above the radiators over by the window.

I knew that, as soon as I knocked out those five problems in a row, it was project time! But I also knew that, if I became sloppy by trying to work too fast, I would have to work longer in order to get five in a row correct.

A Criterion of Mastery automatically trains kids to work as fast as they can without working too fast. It develops conscientiousness. But, none of this would have been possible had Miss Bakey spent her time servicing helpless handraisers during Guided Practice instead of providing contemporaneous work check.

No Joy, No Work

Let’s add to the question, “Why should I?” the adage, “No joy, no work.” If you want kids who have no great internalized work ethic to get on the ball and work, you must give them a reason. Since these kids do not work well for delayed reinforcers, you must provide reinforcers soon – upon completion of the task if possible.

Attempting to answer the question, “Why should I?” in a meaningful fashion will push you toward structuring enjoyment as the counterpoint to work in every lesson. Chances are, you will have your students doing more than a few projects. You may even use Miss Bakey’s project box.

What If My Classroom is More Complex?

Hopefully, this article will clarify our thinking about building motivation into classroom assignments. But, as in all of classroom management, “the devil is in the details.” We have presented “the simple case” by using an elementary math assignment to serve as a model. But, what do you do when students are working at different levels? How do you check more complex work, like writing? Tune in next month.

Featured Posts
Search By Tags
bottom of page