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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Best Way to Motivate Students to Complete Complex Tasks

Some time ago I sat down to discuss a classroom observation with an administrator. During our discussion he remarked, “When you asked your students to take out their writing homework, I was curious to see how you'd deal with the kids who didn’t have it. I was actually shocked to see that everyone had it. That's usually not the case.”

Getting students to complete assignments is a nonnegotiable prerequisite to them being able to share their work with classmates. Assigning meaningful and motivating work is certainly half the battle, but getting students successfully started on assignments is also a key way to ensure that the work gets completed in full.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath, bestselling authors of Made to Stick, relate the following anecdote in the #1 New York Times Bestseller Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard:

A local car wash ran a promotion featuring loyalty cards. Every time customers bought a car wash, they got a stamp on their cards, and when they filled up their cards with eight stamps they got a free wash.

Another set of customers at the same car wash got a slightly different loyalty card. They needed to collect ten stamps (rather than eight) to get a free car wash but they were given a head start. When they received their cards, two stamps had already been added.

The “goal” was the same for both sets of customers: buy eight additional car washes, get a reward. But the psychology was different: In one case, you were 20 percent of the way toward a goal, and in the other case, you're starting from scratch. A few months later, only 19 percent of the eight stamp customers had earned a free wash, versus 34 percent of the head start group. And the head start group earned a free wash faster.

People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting point of a shorter one… One way to motivate action, then, is to make people feel as though they're already closer to the finish line then they might have thought.

This phenomenon, in my opinion, is gold. Simply stated, the best way to get students finished is to get them well started. A key to this might be what psychologists call the Zeigarnik Effect. Have you ever done a puzzle with your kids, only to discover a missing piece? We don't shrug and walk away. Instead, we tear the house apart to find that missing piece! We seek closure now that the task is so close to completion.

Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog explains:

It’s called the Zeigarnik effect after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna. The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on. She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927). Except some of the time they were interrupted halfway through the task. Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing. People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed…

Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid starting. It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start.

What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.

Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first. If you can just get under way with any part of a project, then the rest will tend to follow. Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to the end.

In “What Is The “Zeigarnik Effect” and How Did I Apply It In The Classroom Today?” educator Larry Ferlazzo relates the following classroom experience:

One of my students does have a strong tendency toward procrastination. Today, we were completing a short “book talk” form..., and everybody was working away on it except for “John” (not his real name). He said he didn’t know what to write. The article I read about the Zeigarnik Effect immediately came to mind, and I asked him to complete the first question, which just asked for the title of the book and the author’s name. I pointed out that all he had to do was copy it from the cover of his book.

He immediately did so, and then went on to complete the entire form. Would I have made that same suggestion if I hadn’t read about Zeigarnik yesterday? Maybe, maybe not. But it has now made me more conscious of thinking about what might be easy tasks or questions that would be good ways to start challenging assignments (or to use to get students who face a variety of challenges starting on doing any assignments)….

In her Scientific American article “On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik,” Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, states:

The Zeigarnik Effect is a powerful motivating force. And a motivated mind is a mind that is much more capable of thought and accomplishment - even if it does sometimes need to use a cheat sheet to remember just what it wanted to include, be it in a story or an order. I, for one, know that I will always prefer a waiter who writes my order down to one that remembers it—however urgently—all in his head.

So how can we use the “head start,” or Zeigarnik Effect, in our classroom to motivate students to complete even the most challenging tasks?

  • Minimally, for assignments requiring lined paper or an online doc, prompt students to set the paper up before leaving the classroom. In my own class, every paper requires a four line heading, with a precise assignment name on the fourth line. The very act of getting the paper formatted seems to guarantee that more students will have the assignment finished.
  • Purposely include more questions/problems on the assignment than you intend for students to complete. Then complete one or two together as a group to get students well started. (Bonus: this will help clear up misunderstandings about appropriate and complete responses).
  • In the case of short response formats, provide the answers to the first couple of questions. These can be printed upside down or on the side of the page. Letting students see early successes will motivate them to move on.
  • After distributing activity sheets, allow students to complete at least one example with a partner or group. (Bonus: parents appreciate when work comes home partially done, as it typically eliminates complaints of "I don't get it").
  • Allow partners to discuss answers, but not write anything, for two minutes. Then, allow students two minutes of uninterrupted writing time on their own. My students have learned to skip easier questions and instead wrestle with the more difficult questions.
  • When students are completing open-ended, longer format work, I'll use the above procedure (talk, then write) and then ask student volunteers to share just one sentence of what they've written. This reinforces for them that they're on the right course, helps other students hear what good work sounds like, and allows me, the teacher, to quickly redirect the class as a whole if responses are falling short of what we're trying to achieve.
  • Provide exemplars that clearly illustrate model approaches. These exemplars need to be readily accessible to students. Whenever possible, I archive these online so that students can access them remotely, 24/7.
  • Provide sentence stems that students can use or adapt to begin their own responses. When my students were struggling with closing sentences, for example, I equipped them with this page of Closing Sentences that used previously-studied topics from their content areas. Not only did students use these to write better sentences, but they began to pay more attention to how other texts brought closure to paragraphs.
What are your ideas for getting students off to a good start?


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