Monday, March 3, 2008

Linking Difficult Tasks to Positive Rewards

About this time of year, it's hard to motivate students to keep going. They are tired, and if they are not in the top 20% of the class, they don't see the point of working hard anymore.  It's hard to help them see that they need to keep going, and the rewards will be worth it.  While none of these strategies are groundbreaking (I have seen them myself as a TA for Ruth McKinney at UNC Law in her "Take Time for Yourself" handout), it's always good to reinforce the benefits of reinforcing motivating behaviors. 

Here are six tips for motivating students when they don't want to be motivated:
(Adapted from Psychology Today, Jan/Feb 2008, "Doctors' Orders--Without Distress" by Jay Dixit)

1) Pay Yourself: Give a friend $1000 (okay, few, if any, of our students have 1k. Maybe candy? Playstation games?) Everyday a difficult task is completed, get  $50 back (a candy bar? A Playstation game?)  Everyday the target is missed, the money or reward is donated.

2) Create if-then plans: Make good habits automatic.
     If
I wake up in the morning, then I will eat breakfast.
     If I watch 1 hour of TV, then I will read for 2 hours. 

****3) Compete: Setting a contest with a friend can add to motivational fire*****
(MUCH danger with this strategy; law school is competitive enough! However, it may work with a student who has lost motivation to do anything law-school related. Creating small, measurable goals, such as "Whoever does all their reading for Con Law this week pays for a round of beers on Friday night" may work for the most recalcitrant students.)

4) Watch your stress level: "Willpower is a limited resource, so be careful during stressful times when willpower is at a low."  Students who are most defeated are most likely to lose their compass--moral, physical, and mental--and make poor choices. 

5) Use external monitoring: Keep a written record of progress. Studies have shown journaling  positive (not negative) emotions and actions is helpful to see the big picture. Asking students to honestly journal the time they spend studying--and playing--can help them honestly assess their success and reassess their strategies.

6) Make social contacts: "The buddy system is powerful. Find a friend in the same boat and make an appointment to work on the task together."  The wonderful work of Mike Schwartz  has already shown  ASPer's the value of study groups.   I would extend the buddy system to include non-academic tasks, such as a buddy to go out to dinner with each week to talk about anything BUT law school.  I survived law school because I was engaged to a fellow student. His friendship was my lifeline when I was completely defeated by the pressure, and our informal chats about class problems often provided the answers to tough legal issues.

(Rebecca Flanagan) 

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