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Students can motivate their way to success, prof says

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If your child brings home a test paper with an "F" on it, don't ask him why he failed, advises a Purdue University expert on education motivation.

"Asking a child why he failed can lead to a response such as 'Because I'm not smart enough,'" says Dale H. Schunk, professor of educational psychology and head of the Department of Educational Studies. He says the issue is not that your child needs to be smarter; it's that he needs to work smarter.

"In the case of the failed test, ask your child 'How did you take the test?'" Schunk says. "You may learn that your child was watching two boys in class pushing each other, and as a result, didn't have time to finish the test." Schunk says that once you know the problem, you can suggest a better strategy or method for dealing with it next time.

"In addition to teaching subject-area knowledge and skills, the more important goal right now in education is to teach kids to operate independently," Schunk says. He says to learn, students need to regulate themselves to achieve their desired goals.

Self-regulation requires the capability to exercise some degree of control over one's learning. That means controlling as best you can your environment, behavior, thoughts and emotions so that you can be successful. "Rarely can you control everything, but what we need for students to do is decide what areas they can control and make a difference in, " he says.

"If a teacher assigns a term paper on a certain author and says it has to be 10 pages long, then there's not a lot you can control about that. But, you could make a difference by asking if you could write specifically about one of the author's books."

He says students also can take control of a project by coming up with their own strategy for accomplishing the task. "Students should ask themselves, 'What's my plan, how am I going to get this done in time?'" he says.

Schunk says an important factor in successful learning is regulating your beliefs about what causes you to learn. He says students who attribute success to factors over which they have little control -- such as luck or ease of task -- may not be motivated to learn on their own. On the other hand, he says, those who believe that success comes from a combination of factors -- such as ability, effort and the use of strategy -- may be more motivated to work on learning.

Schunk offers these suggestions for parents to help their children become successful, self-regulated learners:

Schunk says parents and teachers often fall into the trap of telling students to work harder. He tells the story of a boy who during a research study was part of a class of students who were all told to work harder on their math problems. "The boy said 'I wish you'd quit telling me that. I'm already working as hard as I can,'" Schunk says.

That was true. When the boy's work was examined, the researchers found that he kept making the same error of subtracting smaller numbers from larger numbers, even when the smaller number was on top of the column. Schunk says when the boy's method was corrected, he did just fine.

Source: Dale H. Schunk, (765) 494-9170; home, (765) 497-2181; e-mail,
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; home, (765) 474-3741; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A black-and-white photo of children painting art projects is available from Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096. Ask for the photo called Schunk/Learning or download here.

Photo caption:
These children are using their own ideas to create pictures for class. A Purdue expert on education motivation says teaching youngsters to act independently is one of the most important goals of education today. (Purdue News Service Photo by Vince Walter)
Black-and-white photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Schunk/Learning

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