Motivation Challenge 1: The Student Cannot Do the Work

Profile of a Student with This Motivation Problem: The student lacks essential skills required to do the task. Areas of deficit might include basic academic skills, cognitive strategies, and academic-enabler skills. Here are definitions of these skill areas:

  • Basic academic skills. Basic skills have straightforward criteria for correct performance (e.g., the student defines vocabulary words or decodes text or computes ‘math facts’) and comprise the building-blocks of more complex academic tasks (Rupley, Blair, & Nichols, 2009). The instructional goal in basic skills is for students to become ‘automatic’ in the skill(s) being taught.
  • Cognitive strategies. Students employ specific cognitive strategies as “guiding procedures” to complete more complex academic tasks such as reading comprehension or writing (Rosenshine, 1995).  Cognitive strategies are “intentional and deliberate procedures” that are under the conscious control of the student (Rupley, Blair, & Nichols, 2009; p. 127). The instructional goals are to train students to use specific cognitive instruction strategies, to reliably identify the conditions under which they should employ these strategies, and to actually use them correctly and consistently.

    Question generation is an example of a cognitive strategy to promote reading comprehension (Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996); the student is trained to locate or write main-idea sentences for each paragraph in a passage, then write those main ideas onto separate note cards with corresponding questions.

  • Academic-enabling skills. Skills that are ‘academic enablers’ (DiPerna, 2006) are not tied to specific academic knowledge but rather aid student learning across a wide range of settings and tasks. Examples of academic-enabling skills include organizing work materials, time management, and making and sticking to a work plan. The instructional goal is to train students to acquire these academic-support skills and to generalize their use to become efficient, self-managing learners.

What the Research Says: When a student lacks the capability to complete an academic task because of limited or missing basic skills, cognitive strategies, or academic-enabling skills, that student is still in the acquisition stage of learning (Haring et al., 1978). That student cannot be expected to be motivated or to be successful as a learner unless he or she is first explicitly taught these weak or absent essential skills (Daly, Witt, Martens & Dool, 1997).


How to Verify the Presence of This Motivation Problem: The teacher collects information (e.g., through observations of the student engaging in academic tasks; interviews with the student; examination of work products, quizzes, or tests) demonstrating that the student lacks basic skills, cognitive strategies, or academic-enabling skills essential to the academic task.

How to Fix This Motivation Problem: Students who are not motivated because they lack essential skills need to be taught those skills.

Direct-Instruction Format. Students learning new material, concepts, or skills benefit from a ‘direct instruction’ approach.  (Burns, VanDerHeyden & Boice, 2008; Rosenshine, 1995; Rupley, Blair, & Nichols, 2009). When following a direct-instruction format, the teacher:

  • ensures that the lesson content is appropriately matched to students’ abilities.
  • opens the lesson with a brief review of concepts or material that were previously presented.
  • states the goals of the current day’s lesson.
  • breaks new material into small, manageable increments, or steps.
  • throughout the lesson, provides adequate explanations and detailed instructions for all concepts and materials being taught. NOTE: Verbal explanations can include ‘talk-alouds’ (e.g., the teacher describes and explains each step of a cognitive strategy) and ‘think-alouds’ (e.g., the teacher applies a cognitive strategy to a particular problem or task and verbalizes the steps in applying the strategy).
  • regularly checks for student understanding by posing frequent questions and eliciting group responses.
  • verifies that students are experiencing sufficient success in the lesson content to shape their learning in the desired direction and to maintain student motivation and engagement.
  • provides timely and regular performance feedback and corrections throughout the lesson as needed to guide student learning.
  • allows students the chance to engage in practice activities distributed throughout the lesson (e.g., through teacher demonstration; then group practice with teacher supervision and feedback; then independent, individual student practice).
  • ensures that students have adequate support (e.g., clear and explicit instructions; teacher monitoring) to be successful during independent seatwork practice activities.


  • Burns, M. K., VanDerHeyden, A. M., & Boice, C. H. (2008). Best practices in intensive academic interventions. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp.1151-1162). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Daly, E. J., Witt, J. C., Martens, B. K., & Dool, E. J. (1997). A model for conducting a functional analysis of academic performance problems. School Psychology Review, 26, 554-574.
  • DiPerna, J. C. (2006). Academic enablers and student achievement: Implications for assessment and intervention services in the schools. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 7-17.
  • Haring, N.G., Lovitt, T.C., Eaton, M.D., & Hansen, C.L. (1978). The fourth R: Research in the classroom. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing.
  • Rosenshine, B. (1995). Advances in research on instruction. The Journal of Educational Research, 88, 262-288.
  • Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching students to generate questions: A review of the intervention studies. Review of Educational Research, 66, 181-221.
  • Rupley, W. H., Blair, T. R., & Nichols, W. D. (2009). Effective reading instruction for struggling readers: The role of direct/explicit teaching. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 25:125–138.