Motivation Challenge 2: The Response Effort to Do the Work Seems Too Great

Profile of a Student with This Motivation Problem: Although the student has the required skills to complete the assigned work, he or she perceives the ‘effort’ needed to do so to be so great that the student loses motivation.

What the Research Says: Research indicates that (1) as the perceived effort to complete an academic task or other behavior (‘response effort’) increases, people are less likely to engage in that behavior, while (2) as the effort to complete the same behavior decreases, people are more likely to engage in it (Friman & Poling, 1995).

How to Verify the Presence of This Motivation Problem: The teacher first checks to see that the student has the requisite skills needed for academic success. The teacher then looks for evidence that, in specific situations, the student is reluctant to undertake academic tasks because they are perceived to require too much effort. Tell-tale signs that a student may be unmotivated because of the required response effort include procrastination, verbal complaining, frequent seeking of teacher help, and other avoidant behaviors.


How to Fix This Motivation Problem: Teachers can increase student motivation through any method that reduces the apparent ‘response effort’ of an academic task (Friman & Poling, 1995). - so long as that method does not hold the student to a lesser academic standard than classmates (Skinner, Pappas, & Davis, 2005).

Try These Ideas to Improve Motivation by Reducing Response Effort: Here are ideas that use reduction in response effort as a motivation tool:

  • Start Assigned Readings in Class. Whenever the teacher assigns a challenging text for students to read independently (e.g., as homework), the teacher (or perhaps a skilled student reader) reads the first few paragraphs of the assigned reading aloud while the class follows along silently in their own texts. Students are then expected to read the remainder of the text on their own.
  • Begin Challenging Homework Assignments in Class. When assigned challenging homework, students are paired off or divided into groups and given a small amount of class time to begin the homework together, develop a plan for completing the homework, formulate questions about the homework, or engage in other activities that will create the necessary momentum to motivate students then to complete the work independently.
  • ‘Chunk’ Assignments. The teacher breaks a larger student assignment into smaller ‘chunks’. The teacher provides the student with performance feedback and praise for each completed ‘chunk’ of assigned work (Skinner, Pappas, & Davis, 2005).
  • Select a Supportive Peer or Adult to Get a Student Started on Assignments. If a student finds it difficult to get organized and begin independent seatwork activities, a supportive peer or adult in the classroom can get the student organized and started on the assignment.
  • Provide a Formal Work Plan. In advance of more complex assignments such as research papers, the teacher gives the student an outline of a work plan for completing those assignments. The plan breaks a larger assignment into appropriate sub-steps (e.g., ‘find five research articles for the paper’, ‘summarize key information from research articles into notes’, etc.). For each sub-step, the plan provides (1) an estimate of the minimum amount of ‘seat time’ required to complete it and (2) sets a calendar-date deadline for completion. The teacher then touches base with the student at least weekly to ensure that the student is staying current with the work plan. (TIP: Over time, the teacher can transfer increasing responsibility for generating work plans to the student.)


  • Friman, P. C., & Poling, A. (1995). Making life easier with effort: Basic findings and applied research on response effort. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28, 583–590.
  • Skinner, C. H., Pappas, D. N., & Davis, K. A. (2005). Enhancing academic engagement: Providing opportunities for responding and influencing students to choose to respond. Psychology in the Schools, 42, 389-403.