The Telescope and Microscope of Student Motivation


"He's a really smart guy, if only he'd GO TO CLASS!"

"She leaves my office full of confidence that she can ace this paper, and then a week goes by, and she STILL HASN'T STARTED IT!"

How many times have we rooted for students only to come up frustrated time and again with their lack of follow-through? They've got the intelligence, they're working on the study skills, and yet they STILL seem to be struggling with the most basic tasks: showing up, finishing assignments, and turning things in on time. What, aside from pulling our hair out, are we to do?

It turns out that at the root of all achievement lies one frustratingly amorphous concept: motivation.

We all know what motivation is - it's that internal force that makes us get up and do something when we could be watching another episode of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. And we know that even the most "self-starters" among us have had to deal with a lack of motivation at times. I've certainly had the experience when, at the end of a long day trekking back and forth across campus under a chilly, gray sky, I realize that I can either a) go home, light the fire, and crack open a good book, or b) go to the gym. At that moment, thirty minutes on a treadmill suddenly seems like a Herculean, near-impossibility!

So we all understand the psychological complexities of getting and staying motivated, but the question remains: how do you teach motivation? How do we help motivate our students to face those boulders in the road when even the simplest tasks can seem insurmountable?

I tend to favor the "telescope and microscope" approach. Get the student to understand the big picture, but also try to break down the task at hand into tiny, manageable pieces.

The Motivation Telescope

Some students, even those who struggle, get the big picture pretty easily. Jeremy, one of my former students, is a bright, capable athlete. He also comes from a poverty-stricken, inner-city neighborhood. Coming to college on an athletic scholarship was the turning point in his life; he has made great strides throughout his time in college and will soon graduate. I saw him a few days ago and I asked him, "Jeremy, what keeps you motivated?" He paused thoughtfully and then, as if the truth lived deep down in his bones, replied, "because I know where I come from, and I don't want to go back."

Understanding the big picture, as Jeremy does, can provide a philosophical foundation for students who may have few role models of post-college success. And while, "this assignment has to be finished on time because it could mean the difference between you achieving the American dream or not" can seem heady, the more a student is able to internalize this philosophy, the more he or she will be able to push his or her way through difficult experiences, academic or otherwise.

But we must also look through our own telescopes and continually ask ourselves why this particular student lacks motivation in this particular endeavor. There are plenty of us who are incredibly motivated when it comes to certain tasks but just as unmotivated when it comes to others. But why? Sometimes we are afraid of failure; sometimes, ironically, we are afraid of success. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the seeming magnitude of the task at hand, and sometimes, yes, we just do not want to do it. We don't like it, it isn't fun, and we JUST DON'T WANNA!!!!

As success coaches, it is our job to try to get to the root of the reason for a student's lack of motivation, and to guide him or her to a solution that fits.

The Motivation Microscope

Clearly the big picture is important, but big pictures can become overwhelming. As I pulled out from the parking lot after one of those long, chilly days, aching to dive into my book while feeling the warmth of the fire on my toes, I realized it was my fixation on those thirty minutes on the treadmill that was stopping me. Then I realized that, at this moment, I didn't have to do thirty minutes on a treadmill. At this moment, all I had to was turn left, towards the fitness center, instead of right towards home. Then all I had to do was park the car. Then all I had to do was change clothes. And before I knew it, I was at home, in front of the fireplace, with a good book...after having spent forty-five minutes on the treadmill. All efforts to jazz myself up for an evening at the gym paled in comparison to just starting to do it, for it is in the doing that we can find the motivation to finish and, eventually, to reap the rewards.

This lesson, of course, is nothing new, but it reminded me of what my students go through when the idea of writing something like a whole paper seems so daunting. I love seeing the relief wash over a student's face when I tell her that, right now, she doesn't have to write a single word. All she has to do right now is brainstorm topics. Then all she has to do is a little bit of research, then identify key points, write a thesis, an introductory sentence, and after a few days she will be looking at a completed paper with a sense of wonder at her own accomplishment. This, by the way, is why we don't start a paper the night before it's due!

Okay, I'd love to continue this conversation, but there are some dishes in my sink that are beginning to stare at me judgmentally. I'm going to start by washing the first one, and see where it goes from there.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Blog, UncategorizedSusan Marion