This is the sixth in a series of articles summarizing the research that established the Reiss Motivation Profile® as The Science of Motivation®.
Together with Paula Kavanaugh, a school counselor, Professor Steven Reiss used the RMP to assess the motivational correlates of low-achieving high school students.
The subjects were 49 students (33 boys and 16 girls) in grades 9 – 11 at an upper middle class, suburban high school located in the United States. All of the participants were enrolled in the standard education curriculum, and all had a grade point average that ranked in the bottom 10 percent of their class, exclusive of students in special education.
Each subject completed the Reiss School Motivation Profile® (RSMP).
The subjects’ scores differed from the norms on seven scales: Curiosity, Family, Honor, Idealism, Social Contact, Tranquility, and Vengeance.
- The subjects scored below the norm on the Curiosity scale. These students’ responses on the RSMP revealed they disliked thinking, experienced intellectual activities as frustrating, and did not enjoy analyzing issues in depth.
- The subjects reported below average prioritization of family life, as evidenced by their low scores on the Family scale. Compared to others, they were less likely to agree with items such as, “I am happiest when spending time with my family” and “My family comes first.”
- The subjects’ low scores on the Honor scale suggested below average concern with behaving morally. Based on their answers to the RSMP items, these students were more likely to act out of self-interest instead of following the rules and were less likely to accept responsibility for their own misbehavior.
- The subjects scored below the norm on the Idealism scale. Compared to their peers, they placed less value on treating people fairly, being compassionate, and helping others.
- The subjects reported above average interest in spending time with peers, as demonstrated by their high scores on the Social Contact scale. Compared to others, these low-achieving students were more likely to agree with items such as, “I love parties” and “I enjoy meeting new people.”
- The subjects’ low scores on the Tranquility scale indicated below average concerns with personal safety. Compared to their peers, they rarely worried, tended to be risk takers, and enjoyed activities that offer excitement and thrills.
- The subjects scored above the norm on the Vengeance scale. These students’ answers on the RSMP showed they were quick to take offense and to fight back, preferred competition over cooperation, and placed great value on winning.
The results suggested three motivational reasons for the subjects’ poor grades:
- Weak Need for Curiosity: The students’ dislike of thinking would lead them to avoid schoolwork as much as possible. For example, they are likely to skim reading assignments instead of reading for meaning, make careless errors due to rushing through their work, rarely recheck their answers, and cram for tests at the last minute – all of which would tend to result in lower grades.
- Weak Need for Honor: The students’ tendency to be unconcerned with following the rules would lead to them to engage in behaviors detrimental to school performance. For example, they may miss instructional time due to being tardy to class, earn only partial credit on incomplete homework assignments, and receive a failing grade if caught attempting to cheat on a test.
- Strong Need for Vengeance: The students’ inclination toward verbal and/or physical aggression in the face of perceived insults may lead to disciplinary referrals that result in detentions and suspensions. These punishments can have a negative effect on the students’ academic performance due to the loss of instructional time.
The findings revealed the kinds of strategies that are not likely to motivate these students toward higher academic achievement. Appeals to duty are unlikely to work because the low-achieving students reported little desire for upright character. The parents of these students may not be able to inspire greater academic effort due to the students’ lower than average valuation of family life. Teachers’ exhortations about the importance of being a lifelong learner probably will not resonate with these students who experience thinking as unpleasant.
According to the findings of this study, the best strategies for motivating these low-achieving students would be those based on the students’ strong needs for peer interaction and competition. For example, increasing the opportunities for group projects and incorporating more competition into classroom activities may serve to encourage greater effort and better grades.
It is important to note the subjects showed average ambition, as evidenced by their average scores on the Power scale. In other words, these low-achieving students were not “lazy.” They may have lacked academicambition due to their dislike of thinking, but their responses on the RSMP indicated they were willing to work reasonably hard for goals that mattered to them.
Another noteworthy finding is that the subjects showed satisfactory self-esteem, as demonstrated by their average scores on the Acceptance scale. Their poor grades were not the result of inconsistent effort due to a fear of failure. As opposed to insecure students who try hard on easy tasks but give up quickly in the face of difficulty, these low-achieving students simply lacked the desire to engage in academic work for a sustained period of time due to the frustration they experienced when required to think.
When students are not achieving to their potential, it is first necessary to assess their most intense basic desires – that is, their most cherished intrinsic goals. This is the purpose of the Reiss School Motivation Profile®. Once these goals have been identified, school professionals are tasked with illustrating for the students the causal relationship between greater academic effort, on the one hand, and success in achieving their goals, on the other hand. Good grades, for example, can help a student with a strong need for Physical Activity to maintain athletic eligibility, while they can help a student with a strong need for Status to gain the attention and respect the student craves.
In summary, the Reiss School Motivation Profile® provides school professionals with a valid tool for understanding each student’s unique intrinsic motives, information that is critical to devising successful strategies for helping low-achieving students.