Some small successes to report today!
Another immensely helpful thing I learned from the book Adding It Up is that intrinsic motivation is a largely a function of two things: how much a student values the task at hand, and whether they believe they will be successful at that task. Thankfully, both of these are squarely within the control of the instructor.
Today, I told my Math Lab students that I would be showing them some mathematics rarely seen by high school students because it’s an advanced upper division math topic in college: graph theory. We started a multi-day activity on graph theory today and by and large, it was pretty successful. Most of the students were engaged in the tasks I gave them. This was an improvement from the first day that this class met on Wednesday; about half of the students were on task. I hope that this was both because I gave them interesting tasks that were grounded in real applications (so it had higher value to them), and while the tasks were challenging they were pitched at the right level (so students felt like they could be successful).
A similar thing happened in my 6th period Algebra 1 class today. I gave students a selection of word problems from the CPM Algebra 1 textbook and gave very explicit instruction on how to read problem statements and how to use guess and check to solve the problems. One student who was very reluctant to do work so far came alive–he came up to me at the end of class to ask me whether he was getting one of the problems right. He was a different student than I had seen so far. Maybe what I’ve stumbled upon is this: a teacher’s goal is to get students hooked on learning by helping them feel successful when they do it.