Motivating Students to Succeed

By Laura Ross, Head of Upper School

Each fall, Greenhill holds a special ceremony to honor students with high academic achievements. We recognize the students who have achieved High Honor Roll status for each trimester of the prior school year, as well as students who have been inducted into Mu Alpha Theta, our Math Honors Society, and those students who have been chosen as National Merit Semi-Finalists, National Achievement Semi-Finalists or National Hispanic Recognition Program Semi-Finalists as a result of their scores on the PSAT year before.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about motivation. What motivates students to achieve? What makes students stay after class to ask extra questions to truly understand a concept? What makes students go back over a paper that they know could be better with some extra editing? What makes students focus on test corrections in math until they truly understand their mistakes? We recently gave our Upper School students the HSSSE, the High School Survey of Student Engagement. The HSSSE measured a lot of things, and gave us the data in three dimensions: academic engagement, school engagement and emotional engagement. In other words – how much do our student feel engaged by their classes and teachers, their extracurricular activities, and the school and its people as a whole. The good news in the results is that our students had higher scores on all three Dimensions of Engagement than other independent schools whose students took the survey. Our students feel invested and excited about being at Greenhill. We were thrilled to see those results.

While the results were overall very positive, there were a few data points that we wanted to look at more closely. One of them was that, when our students were asked what motivates them to achieve – love of learning, engaging teachers, pride in their work, et cetera, one of the most common motivators cited were grades themselves. Students were motivated by lots of things, but chief among them appears to be earning high grades. I really wanted to look at this data more closely and luckily we get comparison data from the other schools who gave this assessment to over 300,000 high school students last year. We also gave the HSSSE seven years ago so we had that data to compare as well. When I looked at our data compared to Greenhill students in 2007, it was clear that the percentage of students who were motivated by grades had grown pretty significantly. However, it was also clear that we were not any different from the other schools, both public and private, who gave this assessment. The data was consistent across both public and private schools in the comparison data, and in the growth pattern since 2007. It probably won’t surprise anyone that American high school students are more grade conscious now than I suspect they’ve ever been.
At our parent program last week about the developmental needs of 9th and 10th graders, our school counselor, Ms. Singhvi, told a story about how when students come to her to say, “Ms. Singhvi, I got a 95 on the test!” she always responds by saying, “so what’s meaningful about that to you?” She said that students often get annoyed by this answer and say, “Ms. Singhvi, you’re just supposed to say, ‘that’s awesome!’” She said that she does this, not to annoy students, but to try to get them to think about why that result makes them feel good. She wants to challenge the notion that it should just be self-evident that a higher grade should automatically equal satisfaction. She wants students to really reflect on why this particular test grade is meaningful. Did the student try a different study strategy that really paid off? Did the student learn to manage some test anxiety by implementing self-calming breathing strategies that allowed him to focus better? Did the student go to bed consistently early the week before the exam instead of staying up cramming and recognized that a rested brain is better than an overstuffed tired one? What feedback did the 95 give her about herself as a learner?

This comment really made me stop and think. I know I have not done a good job at this. When students, or even my own children, tell me they did well on something, I have exactly one stock answer: “That’s awesome! Congratulations!” I, and most adults I know, help to feed this idea that good grades automatically, and in every situation, equal awesome. However, I should know better. I work with teenagers every day and I know that for some kids that 95 was a result of obsessive studying borne out of potentially damaging perfectionism. Or perhaps it came from the fact that math comes super easily and the 95 didn’t actually require any real effort on the student’s part. Or perhaps the 95 came because the student gave up an extracurricular activity that truly makes them happy because they felt like they needed to get higher grades for college even though their daily life is no longer enriched by athletics, clubs or the arts?

These thoughts are not intended to minimize the achievements of our students. They are all achievers because they choose to be at Greenhill where they know they are held to higher standards inside and outside the classroom than many other places they could choose to be. Families make enormous sacrifices to send their children here and to help them find success. Some of the rewards of being at a place like Greenhill don’t become apparent until well into the future when our graduates recognize how much better prepared they are than many of their college classmates. Or maybe it comes when they realize as adults that they have learned a deep sense of gratitude for their place in this world as a result of their time at Greenhill. Sometimes high school is just hard. It can be emotionally draining and mentally taxing. However, what we can do as adults to help them is sometimes not to take the easy route by automatically saying, “That’s awesome” when they say they got a 95. Ask them the follow up question. Dig deeper. Help them understand that you care about what they learn about themselves by the learning they do, not just about the number that ends up on the transcript. Remind them that the adults in their lives see them as more than just numbers. I know that when we all take a step back and remember that these children, these amazing children, are possessed of many gifts, most of which, and perhaps the most important of which, cannot be quantified, we will take the time to not just say, “that’s awesome.”

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