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A Case Study in Motivation

Teri Arenstam
University of New England




Jake was a student two years ago in my sophomore science class and now he is back in my
classroom during his senior year for Honors Chemistry. He is a very likeable young man with a
quick smile and a great sense of humor. Jake is very bright and has a keen interest in science.
He loves to go off on a tangent about some science related fact he has come across.
Unfortunately, he rarely has it quite right and applies it in the wrong context, but that never
phases him and he is often the source of some lively conversation. Jake has a core group of
friends but does not play any sports or belong to any clubs. He does play in the orchestra and
seems to enjoy being part of that very talented group of students. Jake rarely does homework
and that has had a negative impact on his grade which in turn affects his choices for college.
Jake would like to attend a four year college. He has no idea what he would like to major in so
he is leaning towards a liberal arts education right now. Mom talks the talk when phone calls
are made home, but does not follow through. Jake is in my Honors Chemistry class this year
because both his guidance counselor and I both know he is capable of doing the work. Jake and I
have always gotten along well and have definitely made a connection.
Jake is forever turning over a new leaf. He wants to do well and has the
best of intentions, but he always falls back into old patterns. Jake is an active
participant in class. He is quick to answer questions and is comfortable
speaking before the class. During his sophomore year, Jake would often
come to class on quiz or test day and tell me how hard he had studied. He
was always shocked when he did not do well, but I was not. While he was
quick to understand concepts, he rarely practiced what he was learning. This
lack of practice affected his ability to apply what he had learned. I always


offered Jake the opportunity to come for extra help or just to talk about what
we were studying; but he always told me he got it and did not need any
help. Ive got this Mrs. Arenstam, was a constant refrain.
Jake had a rough start in Honors Chemistry this year. The first unit is a
review and Jake felt that he already knew the material so he put in little
effort and failed the first quiz. That combined with missing homework
assignments had him only earning a D after the first three weeks of school.
His current grade in Chemistry is B-. I recently checked Jakes grades and
found that he is getting As in both of his music classes, a B in Digital Layout
and Design, C in Honors Statistics, and a D in English. Upon further
checking, the D in English is due to missing assignments and the C in
Statistics is due to low test scores. I think both of these relate to the same
issues that I have with Jake. He does not like to do homework and the lack of
practice affects his test scores.


I believe application of the self-determination theory will benefit Jake.

Anderman & Anderman (2013) describe amotivated students as those who
have low beliefs in their ability and do not value the academic tasks with
which they are presented. I think this describes Jake. While he believes he is
studying hard, he is not. This leads him to not do well, which erodes his selfefficacy when engaging in subsequent tasks. I think he does not do
homework because he believes it is not worth his time. He has not made a
correlation between practicing school work and doing well. My goals for Jake


are two-fold. First, I want to find ways to make the work he has to do more
meaningful for him. Second, I want to see his self-efficacy improve by giving
him opportunities to succeed.
The first thing I did was have Jake come in for a conversation after school
one day. I told him that it was apparent he was not off to a good start and I
wanted to come up with a plan, with him, so that he would be successful.
We talked about the things that impede him from studying and doing his
homework. He could not articulate it well. What it boils down to is that he
always intends to do his homework and he has no good reason for not doing
it. I believe he has the time and opportunity, but just does not find it
valuable; there is no intrinsic motivation.
One of my strategies for Jake involves extrinsic motivation. Ryan & Deci
(2000) distinguish not only between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but
also between extrinsic motivation that motivates with actions of disinterest
and resentment and extrinsic motivation that motivates with acceptance of
the value of the task. My goal is to achieve the latter with Jake. I told him I
wanted to have a plan in place so that we could immediately address
homework incompletion if it became a problem. We talked about the
importance of doing homework. I run a flipped classroom, so homework in
my class is vital because watching my lectures on video is when student are
introduced to new material. On the nights that students are not watching
videos they are continuing to practice what we have done in class and that is
important to mastering the concepts. Together, we decided that if he came


to class without his homework completed he would come and complete the
next two assignments in my room after school. The extrinsic motivation
being if he does his homework he does not have to spend time doing it with
me after school. Staying after school is not a problem for Jake since he does
not play sports and drives himself to school. Since we instituted this policy,
Jake has missed two assignments and fulfilled his obligation by coming to my
class to complete the two subsequent assignments. He also showed up on
two other occasions just to use one of the classroom IPads to watch a taped
A second strategy I used with Jake involved incorporating some
differentiation into a lab report. The entire class benefitted from this strategy.
Jake and his partner received a failing grade on the first lab report of the
year. It was dismal; there was little thought put into the questions that
required analysis of data and synthesis of information. He thought writing a
lab report was incredibly boring although he did make a very detailed graph
of his data. In a subsequent flame test lab, I allowed students some choice
in the manner in which they presented their data. I offered some
suggestions but also allowed students the freedom to come up with own
ideas. Tomlinson (2001) points out the choice is a powerful motivator for
students. Jake and his partner did a great job on this assignment. They used
one of the classroom IPads to photograph each test (the result is a different
colored flame for each trial). They imported a visible light spectrum from the
internet and printed it along with their photographs with a color printer.


They compared the color of the flame to the spectrum right on their lab
report. They actually were excited about calculating the wavelengths of the
color of their flames because they wanted to see how close they came to the
actual spectrum. Jake and his partner got a B+ on this lab (the introduction
needed work). This appealed to Jakes interest in digital imaging, a class that
he does very well in.
I observed the homework assignments that involved note-taking were the
ones that Jake often did not do. I require my students to take notes in the
Cornell format for the first quarter of the year. After that, they may choose
to take notes in the format they like best. My reasoning is that many
students have difficulty with note taking and it is a valuable skill for them to
take to college. I particularly like the Cornell format because it requires
students to write a summary at the end of each page which forces them to
make sense of the material they have just learned. Jake hates taking notes.
He does not like taking them during class, during videos and especially
dislikes taking notes on the book. We talked about the importance of notetaking with regard to both learning the material covered and studying for
exams. We also talked about various formats of getting information down
on paper. Jake decided that he would try concept mapping. I thought that
this was too difficult, but he insisted that this was the format that would be
most appealing to him. We decided to start with book notes first and that he
would use all bolded concepts within the assigned reading to put in the
concept bubbles. Much as I suspected, this proved to be more work than he


anticipated and so he opted to take notes just using bullet points. While I am
not thrilled with this format, I believe that some notes are better than no
notes and that if he is taking some notes, then he is doing the reading or
watching the lectures. Offering Jake some choice in this area has helped, but
this continues to be one of Jakes weakest performance areas.
A last observation I made of Jake is that he is not persistent and gives
up easily. When we are working on problems in class that require anything
other than plugging in numbers, he will quit and start talking to the people
around him. When I tell him to get back to work, he usually gives me the
stock I got this Mrs. A which I know translates to I cant do this. I tried
making problem solving groups. I put students in groups of four by mixed
ability. In each group there is at least one student with good problem solving
skills. I ask students to work on problems and check with their group
members as they solve the problems, making sure that everyone comes out
with the same answer in the end. Anderman & Anderman (2013) point out
that social interactions and cooperation among students has been found to
be a motivating factor. I have been careful to switch the groups weekly and
use flexible grouping so that as Tomlinson (2001) describes, the students do
not feel pegged into a slot. Most students are very good about helping
others in their group who are struggling with a particular problem. I have
witnessed Jake both on the receiving end of help and on the offering end as



Effective Strategies

The homework strategy is the most effective strategy I have used with
Jake. He does not have after school commitments so he is available to spend
the time in my room. Some students might view spending time after school
with a teacher as punitive, but Jake does not. I think he actually enjoys
coming into my room. We chat, sometimes I give him a snack, he gets his
work done, and I answer any questions he has. This works well with Jake
because he and I have a good relationship. I always know if he has done his
homework when he comes through the door because he loudly (and proudly)
announces that it is done. This relates to Jakes sense of competence, which
Anderman & Anderman (2013) describe as a students need to feel adept at
engaging in academic tasks.
Another strategy that was effective was offering choice in the product of
the lab report. This appealed not only to Jake, but to all of the students in
the class. Offering students choice appeals to their sense of autonomy
(Anderman & Anderman, 2013). It was so successful that I will continue to
use this not only with this lab, but any other lab that will allow some
flexibility in presentation.
The flexible grouping for problem solving has also proven effective for
Jake and beneficial for the rest of the class. The atmosphere in the
classroom is relaxed and students work hard on completing the problem set
as I circulate in the classroom. I think this activity speaks to both the
relatedness and competence aspects of self-determination theory. Students


are working in a group, cooperatively and helping each other. They are also
accomplishing the task at hand. When we are done, everyone has a
complete set of problems, done correctly. This makes them feel more
competent than if they were left alone to flounder with a set of problems.
When they have successfully completed a set of problems they have more
confidence when they approach the next set. I hope that this has resulted in
an increase in self-efficacy for Jake and my other students.
My strategy involving note-taking is the least effective of the four different
strategies I employed. I have yet to come up with a solution that is
engaging. Offering different formats for note-taking appears to not be
enough choice. The sole motivating factor for most students is that I check
notes and they get a grade.
IV. Conclusion
I believe the key to whatever success I have with Jake is due to the fact
that he and I have a good relationship. Because of the mutual respect that
we have for each other, he allows me to push him. This is something that I
strive for with all of my students, but it is more easily attainable with some
than others. I think what this process has once again emphasized to me is
that one size does not fit all. I need to be very thoughtful in everything
that I do. What motivates one student may actually work negatively against
another. In doing my research for this project I was struck by a quote that I
read: In schools, the facilitation of more self-determined learning requires
classroom conditions that allow satisfaction of these three basic human



needs that is they support the innate needs to feel connected, effective,
and agentic. (Ryan & Deci, 2000). I would like this to be a guiding principle
of my classroom and intend to use it a measuring stick for my instructional

Anderman, E. M., & Anderman, L. H. (2013). Classroom motivation. (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle
River: Pearson Education.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic
definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology,
25, 54-67.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms.
(2 ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.