One of the most vexing and widely discussed challenges emerging from the pandemic is student motivation. Too many students have difficulty showing up regularly and on time. Many students are reluctant to commit to their learning and persist when they struggle. They fail to produce work that reflects their best effort. And they are missing aspirations for future learning and educational endeavors.
We might choose to nudge, nag, and press students to engage in the behaviors we want from them. For some students, our pressure will be enough to convince them to comply with our expectations and direction. However, other students will choose to disengage, minimally comply, or even resist our efforts.
Ultimately students will choose their path based on what they believe will serve their interests and reflects what they believe about themselves and the situation they face. Unless we understand the world as the student sees it, we are left to trial and error, increasing threats, and growing conflict.
Fortunately, there is a strategy with roots in psychology and social work we can draw from. The approach, known as motivational interviewing, seeks to understand the interests, values, goals, and perspectives of the student as means to build insight and uncover potential ways for the student and us to create and sustain their motivation.
However, motivational interviewing requires more than questioning students or confronting them with what we believe they should do. Summer school can be a good time to try out and practice strategies such as this so when fall comes, we have an additional tool at our disposal to help our students learn.
We need to approach the interview from the perspective of a collaborative conversation. Our goal is to learn, not convince. We want to learn what we can from the student and for the student to understand that the power to change their behavior rests with them.
Success is most likely when we help students to adopt behaviors and set goals consistent with their values and long-term goals. Motivational interviews can inform us of ways to support and assist students through understanding of what interests them, what they value, and what they want to accomplish. But significant and lasting change is most likely when commitment comes from the student rather than as compliance with our wishes.
Of course, motivational challenges come in many forms. Some students may seem disengaged. Other may be fast starters, but never seem to finish. Still others may fail to give their best effort despite possessing high potential for success. Consequently, we may need to adjust our approach in response to the motivational challenge the student appears to face. Regardless, we might start our interview with a question such as, “I notice that you seem to have difficulty finishing your work and it’s happening often enough to be getting in the way of your success. How do you see what is happening and what might be stopping you from following through?” Or “You often show a remarkable ability to learn, but at times you seem to back off and not show your full abilities. I wonder why that might be. Can you give me some insight from your perspective?”
Research on effective motivational interviewing points to several key behaviors and attitudes we can adopt throughout the interview:
- Listen to understand, not to judge. We might respond with, “I think I understand what you are saying. Can you tell me more?”
- Maintain respect for the student’s perspective, even if we do not agree with it. Our response may be, “I appreciate you sharing this information with me. It seems like a significant challenge. I wonder if there may be a different way to think about the situation.”
- Empathize with the student’s feelings, experiences, and challenges. We might comment, “I can see that this is a difficult challenge, and you are frustrated. I wonder what steps might lead you to a better place.”
- Position the conversation as a partnership. We might respond with, “I think I understand the situation from your perspective. I wonder if we could work together to find a strategy or approach that might work for you.”
- Focus on meeting the student where they are, not where we would like them to be. We might ask, “What steps do you see to move forward? I have an idea or two, if you think they might be helpful.”
As students identify areas in which their current experiences and performance are not what they would like them to be, we can support them to explore steps and strategies to move forward. When students ask for our ideas, we need to be careful to share them as options and possibilities, not mandates.
Ultimately, we want students to commit to the motivational changes that will make them successful. But reaching this goal may require multiple conversations and feature occasional setbacks. Our patient and unwavering confidence in the student’s ability to succeed will be crucial.
Of course, throughout the process of motivational interviewing we will learn much about our students that can assist us as we present content and introduce new skills, position learning tasks, and provide support throughout the learning process. The better we understand our students, the better able we are to tap what interests them, what they value, and what they want to accomplish.