Parents Shouldn’t Assume a Poor Learner Isn’t Trying
Study suggests struggling students need learning help more than motivation
The next time you find yourself bribing your beloved offspring with dessert or video games in exchange for them to Pleeeease just do well on the damn math test, you might consider that this tact is ineffective, according to a new study from economists at five universities.
“There’s very little evidence that struggling students are less motivated,” says Christopher Cotton, an economist at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario. “A lot of focus is on motivating them, and it is often misplaced.”
Cotton and his peers concluded this through a complex study aimed at identifying why children struggle with schoolwork. They paid middle schoolers across Chicago to study and do math problems on a website, which allowed the researchers to measure motivation and time to mastery.
The results surprised them: Poorly performing students were often plenty engaged, logging ample study hours, yet simply not mastering the work. This held true across gender, race and income. You’ve surely experienced this yourself, all the times you stared at a physics or French or organic chemistry textbook for hours, and shortly thereafter bombed a quiz or exam.
The engagement level of underperforming students was news to researchers, including co-author Joseph Price, an economist at Brigham Young University, who as a result has overhauled how he approaches his students. “We tend to clump kids who do poorly into the same category, when it’s critical to identify the root reasons they’re struggling,” he says.
“Historically, I would have just told all students to work harder — I assumed that if they were good enough to get into college, then they’re good enough to do the work,” Price says. “And now I realize that if I have a kid in my class who requires a lot of work to be successful, then telling him to work harder might make the problem worse, especially if he is maxed out and actually needs better skills at converting the time he’s devoting into actual meaningful learning.”
The key concept here is “academic efficiency,” which is how quickly a student can turn effort into learning. For example, one child might be able to look at the multiplication table for the number 4, practice it a few times, and master it. Others will work on the table for 30 minutes and still tell you that 4 x 3 = 7.
When your own kids struggle, the key is to ask yourself whether they’re not understanding the material or are simply unmotivated, and react accordingly. Kids who are not comprehending the work need adult help or tutoring, typically with an eye toward foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Unmotivated kids need to be incentivized to spend more time hitting the books.
The culprit is not always apparent. My 7-year-old signals all low academic performance by tipping upside down in his chair, his toes pressing against his homework, periodically knocking a drink onto the papers.
Price says that once you get your child upright, you can identify the root cause by simply observing how quickly the student is mastering the material and applying it. Price has watched elementary schoolers “working on one topic and doing 120 problems and still not getting them right. To me that was really eye-opening because it meant they were working crazy hard. They just needed someone to teach them how to do that particular thing.”
Reading problems can also be something other than lack of effort. Price knows of what he speaks: He is a father of seven. “I can kind of observe how long my kids spend reading, and maybe I have two kids that are struggling with reading, but I notice that one is trying quite a bit and the other isn’t. With the one that isn’t trying, maybe I need to think about ways to motivate his efforts; and with the one that is trying, maybe I need to sit down with him and work on some reading skills.”
Pro tip: If the root cause of your children’s underperformance is still unclear, ask ’em. Price says that as a professor, he often can’t diagnose the underlying issue from test scores or classroom behavior, but his students are typically honest in one-on-one meetings. “They’ll say, ‘I haven’t been putting a lot of time in,’ or ‘I’m spending five hours a week studying.’”
As the pandemic rolls on, Price and Cotton suggest that parents be ultra-committed to getting kids the tutoring support they need. Time is of the essence, because performance gaps widen by middle school.
Most important, be kind. “These results have given me more empathy,” Price says. “Now I acknowledge that students are working really hard, and tell them that their work ethic is an amazing skill. What I’ve learned is that the struggling student needs so much more love and empathy from me.”