Motivating Teens to do Research

Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) found that student achievement can increase when teachers show the relationship between an increase in effort to an increase in success. However, at the adolescent stage, the explicit illustration or discussion of this topic would most likely disengage at-risk learners who deem themselves (or have been deemed as) low-achievers. The condescension of the topic is off-putting, particularly for upperclassmen. In order to avoid coming across as “preachy”—which is very unproductive with teens—the secondary educator has to think more peripherally.

In order to support an upper-level learning environment, high-school teachers must consider the foundation of what drives effort or creates it in the first place: intrinsic motivation . Without intrinsic motivation, effort is merely compliance; thus, motivation must come first. Easier said than done with a group of adolescents who’d really rather be playing video games. How does one build intrinsic motivation in teenagers, particularly in a project that spans weeks of preparation and looks suspiciously like a research paper?

Research Paper FrustrationOne way to implement the strategy may be found in ourselves as “Teachers with high self-efficacy create mastery experiences for their students. Those beset by self-doubts construct classroom environments that are likely to undermine students’ judgments of their abilities and their cognitive development” (Gibson & Dembo, 1984; Woolfolk, Rosoff, & Hoy, 1990 as cited in Pajares & Urdan, 2006, p. 11). How's your self-efficacy level these days?

In a Research Paper Unit, then, it stands to reason that I should parallel the students’ efforts, working alongside them from start to finish. I.e. Completing my own research project, warts and all. Schunk (1991) echoes this thinking: “Classroom models—teacher and peer—are important sources of vicarious efficacy information; observing others succeed can convey to observers that they too are capable” (p. 216). Determining a problem that I really want to solve and working through my analysis of what causes the problem will help them see that not all ideas work right away nor will I necessarily be successful at all I attempt. Further, watching the messiness of research and problem-solving will help undercut the strange notion that some students have that everything should be “perfect” right away. Rather, it’s the thinking that matters, first, followed by a polishing later.

Another approach to consider in a research unit is the integration of a reflection component of the project.  To understand their self-efficacy, teens have to figure out where they are, where they're going, and where they want to be.  Collins (1982) found that “self efficacy predicts motivation and achievement across levels of student ability” (as cited in Schunk 220). Thus, how the student judges his or her ability directly correlates to the success of the outcome and the depth of learning.

Additionally, tapping into the students’ perceptions of self-efficacy as it pertains to their projects would help them see that they are, indeed, making progress as Schunk (1991) advocates: “Motivation is enhanced when students perceive they are making progress in learning (p. 209). Identifying the more difficult performance tasks and providing a booster shot of motivation/self-efficacy right before those tasks may help offset potential issues with laziness, apathy, or dwindling self-efficacy.

Addressing failure, what I call the “elephant in the room”, connects to all of these topics of effort, motivation, and self-efficacy. Failure has a bad reputation in the classroom, and dispelling it as such may actually contribute to effort. Kapur and Bielaczyc (2012) found that under different conditions a teaching method that involves invention and productive failure is more effective than direct instruction. The method requires students to struggle to figure out how to solve novel problems before they are given the solution. In their abstract, they note:

Despite seemingly failing in their problem-solving efforts, [productive failure] students significantly outperformed [direct instruction] students on the well-structured and complex problems on the posttest. They also demonstrated greater representation flexibility in solving average speed problems involving graphical representations, a representation that was not targeted during instruction. (Kapur & Bielaczyc, 2012)

How to deal with failure or the usefulness of failure, as a discussion, as opposed to the value of effort, may engage adolescent learners more authentically. It is a life skill and, most likely, would work best right after a student reflection on initial self-efficacy and before moving into research.

Although reward for effort and recognition of effort are effective strategies, in general, I do find that with teenagers, the act of doing so is not unlike walking on a tightrope. Things may go well at first, then, the wobbling starts. What then? The weakness to the strategy is found in what it doesn’t do: help students embrace intrinsic motivation. In his powerful TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, Dan Pink links motivation for performance to an economic model, but his findings can easily relate to students and speak to the weakness of the strategy.

Depending on the task, Pink (2009) asserts, the incentive may not work and may cause harm. For 21st Century tasks, which require less narrow and more abstract, right brain, conceptual, creative thinking, incentive slows workers down. If/then rewards work well for simple tasks and easy rules because “rewards narrow focus and concentrate the mind” (Pink, 2009). If the person can see the goal—incentive works. For a more complex, multi-step problem, rewards as motivation narrow possibilities. Given that a research project is not a simple or narrow task, providing concrete symbols for recognition may not work and may negate the effort.

Schunk (1991) also found that performance-contingent rewards for solving a math problem resulted in enhanced motivation. However, task-contingent rewards, such as participation, didn’t (p. 219). Again, the narrowness of the task seems to make a difference in the choice to include any sort of incentive as a motivator. My goal is for students to find or arrive at a sense of self-motivation and self-recognition as well as an enhanced self-efficacy. I don’t want them to think with blinders on or to “get” the trinket (whether symbolic or tangible). I want them to recognize their own effort.

All in all, I know the strategy of recognizing effort is worthwhile. However, its application for today’s adolescents requires a bit more tact and precision than presented in Marzano et al. (2001).


Glucksberg, Sam. (1962). The influence of strength of drive on functional fixedness and perceptual recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63 (1), 36-41. doi: 10.1037/h0044683

Kapur, M. & Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for Productive Failure. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21 (1), 45-83. doi: 10.1080/10508406.2011.591717

Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. (2001) Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Pajares, F. & Urdan, T. (2006). Self-efficacy beliefs of adolescents. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Pink, D. (July 2009) The puzzle of motivation. [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

Schunk, D. H. (1991). Self-efficacy and academic motivation. Educational Psychologist, 26 (3& 4), 207-231.

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