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Student Apathy: Are There Any Answers?

by
Derward Richardson, PhD
Education is a complex triangle of students, parents, and teachers working together toward the
common goal of learning. That learning in American schools is not occurring at the pace and
quality found in other developed countries is no longer a matter of debate. Educational initiatives
at both the national and state levels have recognized the quandary, but have done little to stem the
tide. The current state of affairs has left educators, parents, and teachers scratching their heads,
wondering whether any initiative, regardless of its source and aim, can ever help education in
America reach escape velocity, where it breaks free from the forces that keep it mired in
pedagogical inertia and bureaucratic stagnation. Still, the questions persist, What has made
learning so hard and challenging for American students?
When students dont learn as expected, the first impulse is to cast blame. Parents blame teachers
and the administrators that hire them. Teachers blame parents for not cultivating in their
children the principles that undergird real learning. And students blame teachers for lacking the
kinds of engagement and excitement that culture and mass media have taught them to expect.
Each of these assessments holds kernels of truth, as volumes of educational studies have shown.
But if asked to isolate the main problem that many students face today, a problem that stands as
perhaps the most formidable obstacle to the goal of learning, my experience in the classroom
points to the pervasive plague of apathy, that attitudinal habit of mind that has led millions of
students to the arid wasteland of callousness and indifference, particularly where matters of
learning are concerned.
Apathy is defined as a lack of interest or concern, especially regarding matters of general
importance or appeal. Apathy, in our case, pertains to education, or better stated, to students
indifferent attitudes toward the goals that education presents as viably real and achievable. That
American students are stricken with this malady has not gone without comment. Some educators,
in fact, offer hard-hitting assessments of the current state of affairs. Dr. David Benders of Union
College writes, Student apathy has risen to a level that places education in the United States at
serious risks. The current U.S. student has become an unmotivated, apathetic individual with a
lack of interest, goals, and determination to succeed in the academic curriculum.1
1

Benders, David S., Student Apathy: The Downfall of Education, Union College, Educational Studies
Unit, Dec. 5, 2011. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1968613

Such viewpoints about American students are not new. In a famous 48 page study conducted in
1983 called A Nation at Risk, its authors stated that for too many people education means
doing the minimum work necessary for the moment, then coasting through life on what may have
been learned in its first quarter.2 Other studies about students attitudes toward school confirm
the 1983 study. Sanders and Ticktin, for example, make the following sobering observations:
[T]he majority of high school students are unmotivated and . . . those students that do
show positive work efforts in school exhibit them for reasons other than a real desire to
learn. Sixty percent of students in [our] poll stated that they were motivated half the time
or less, and only two percent of the polling sample indicated that they were motivated
nearly all the time in school. Furthermore, the primary motivator of the sample was grades
or college acceptance (50% response rate), as opposed to only 14% that cited gaining an
understanding of content knowledge or learning about subject material. 3
The Sanders and Ticktin study describes what many parents and teachers routinely face. Students
nowadays lack motivation, and the motivation that they do manage to muster tends to be
externally imposed, not the kind that germinates deeply within ones being, directing ones course
over time in ways that support growth. The distinction between the two, in my view, is critical,
and it is supported by my own empirical observations in the classroom where the one tends to
dominate over the other.
What has been lost by American students is the passion, the will, the desire to learn for learnings
sake. Learning has been relegated as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Students are
taught to learn for what learning can get them, not for what it intrinsically is. Learning gets one a
better grade, which leads to college, which leads to a better job, which leads to better pay, which
leads to a higher social standing, which leads to increased purchasing power, which leads to the
perception of overall success. All of these societal by-products of learning are real and legitimate to
a degree, but they cannot stand as a lasting and viable foundation for real learning. That we are
the richest and most powerful nation on earth with educational outcomes that suggest otherwise
should be proof enough that something is amiss educationally.
If, therefore, learning is relegated to such pragmatic and economic ends, what happens when those
ends become less achievable, less desirable, or less practical? Moreover, if learning among students
has become increasingly difficult to achieve in a country that promises as much as America does,
what conclusion can we draw except that the external motivations, like the ones just described, are

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, The National Commission on Excellence in
Education, April (1983). Retrieved from http://datacenter.spps.org/uploads/sotw_a_nation_at_risk_1983.pdf
3

Sanders, Jeff, and Rachel Ticktin, Finding the Root Cause of Student Apathy, Tcnj.edu. The College of New
Jersey, n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2013. <http://pan.intrasun.tcnj.edu/501/projects/Sanders/inquiry%20project.htm>

running on fumes, falling far short of what it is they promise. In short, if a student cant learn in
America with all the external rewards that our country offers, then what possible carrot of
motivation is left? This should tell us something about the state of education in America, not to
mention something of the explanations that we give to students as to why they should get one.
So, learning must find a basis in something other than external motivations. I agree with many
educators who believe that learning is best accomplished when a student is intrinsically motivated.
Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than
for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the
fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external prods, pressures, or rewards.4
The problem with intrinsic motivation, however, is that it typically applies to only those things that
one considers pleasurable or interesting. And, lets be honest, much of what goes on in the
classroom is neither interesting nor pleasurable for many students. What must occur, then, is that
students find ways to move from being unmotivated, which is often the case, to being intrinsically
motivated, which is less common. The diagram below, supplied by Ryan and Deci, illustrates this
movement (left to right).

Extrinsic
Motivation
Amotivation

Intrinsic
Motivation
External

Regulation

Introjected
Regulation

Identification

Integration

I love to learn!

I hate school

I see the value of learning to my future.

Ive got to make an A on my math test!

Spelling well will help me write better.

If I dont make an A, my parents will kill me!

Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New
Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, (2000): 5467. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Amotivation: results from a student not valuing an activity, not feeling competent to do it, or not believing
it will yield a desired outcome
External Regulation: behaviors/actions that are performed by a student to satisfy an external demand or
obtain an externally imposed reward
Introjected Regulation: a student performs an act out of pressure or in order to enhance or maintain selfesteem and the feeling of worth
Identification: the student increasingly identifies with the personal importance of school and has thus
accepted its regulations as his or her own (though not fully integrated as a personal value)
Integration: where the student accepts the value of school, making it a part of the other things that he or
she values (though still outcome dependent).
Intrinsic motivation: behavior that is driven by internal rewards; the motivation to engage in a behavior
arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding

How might we summarize the above information? First, there is little doubt that most of what
drives modern education is extrinsic motivation, especially as students progress into their later
academic years (high school, in particular). If students only experience this type of motivation,
however, it stands to reason that they will never know what true learning is, for the personal values
that accompany and undergird real education are never really their own. This explains why so
many students never become passionate about learning. The desire to learn has always been
someone elses, not theirs. And watching parents who love learning try to transfer that love to a
child who is intransigent to learnings beckoning call is a pitiable circumstance indeed.
Second, in order to make the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, where students
internalize for themselves the value of learning, they must experience what Ryan and Deci call
relatedness, a sense of belongingness and connectedness to the persons, group, or culture
disseminating a goal, which in our case is learning. Just as football players feel connected to a
common purpose of winning football games and in so doing find community, unity, and purpose,
so too it should be with students.
I encourage every teacher at OCS to connect, to bond with students, to relate to them in such a
way that they, in a communal way, work together toward the shared and common goal of learning.
The sense of this joint journey helps students internalize the value of their education in ways that
otherwise cannot be known. Moms and dads, friends, teachers, and church leaders, therefore,
all form an essential support group whose collective views on the intrinsic value of education
can help students internalize for themselves the value of their own education. Without their
encouragement, without their being sold out on the gift and privilege that education is, and
without their own conviction that learning is intrinsically worthwhile as a means of self-fulfillment,
the support structures that help students graduate from extrinsic motivations to intrinsic ones are
less capable of producing a student who learns for learnings sake.

Third, students are less likely to be intrinsically motivated unless they perceive themselves as
competent to the task at hand. For example, I hate the game of golf because I am an atrociously bad
golfer. My golf cleats rotted on the shelf after years of hanging uselessly on my garage wall. I even
gave away my Ping irons that were hand-made by a scratch golfer. Why? Because I never achieved
any degree of competency in the sport. Students are no different. They oftentimes never achieve
intrinsic motivation because they never acquire the relevant skills that are necessary to excel
academically. Competency engenders self-confidence, and goals of any kind can only be reached
when both competency and self-confidence are made a part of ones inner being. And this can
happen only when one small success builds on another, then another, then another, with failures
sprinkled in between. What often happens is that students are given tasks which they have neither
gained the competency nor self-confidence to achieve. And when one failure follows another and
then another, with the chance of success out of sight, apathy eventually becomes the mechanism
that is employed to mask the string of failures that was bound to happen from the start. Goals
that are perceived to be unrealizable are never internalized as achievable, usually ending in an I
dont care mentality.
Lastly, for intrinsic motivation to take hold, students must reach some level of self-determination.
Educators prefer the word autonomy. When my daughter starts her homework because I tell her to,
that is different than her beginning it all on her own. The former is a response to my authority as
her dad. The latter happens because shes made a self-conscious decision to do so. The one act is
a matter of extrinsic motivation (obedience to an external command), the other a matter of
conscious, internal self-determination (an internal voice that recognizes and values the doing and
completion of a task at hand). That the latter response can arise from a fear of the former is true,
but at least one must recognize that by taking the initiative herself, my daughter is moving toward
internalizing the value of education for herself. In time, the hope is that her drive and passion to
learn will be autonomously spurred rather than externally driven. Just how self-determined she
will become will be measured by the degrees to which she passes over the threshold of extrinsic
motivation to full-fledged intrinsic motivation. My desire that she be a life-long learner will then
be truly her own possession, not merely a fatherly yearning. And then she will know going forward
that she and she alone is responsible for any learning that occurs. This is when real learning takes
hold, when one takes responsibility for ones life by leveraging learning so that goals can be
established and then reached.
Making the claim that students today are apathetic, I believe, is true, but it by no means tells the
whole story. Their apathy exists for a reason, and many of those reasons have to do with
relatedness (or the lack thereof), a failure to reach self-confidence and competency (which is a
teacher/student issue to a great degree), and self-determination (the commitment on the students
part to take control of his or her life in all of its multi-faceted dimensions). Whether your student
and mine will succeed in being intrinsically motivated to learn will largely be determined by how
committed we are to the view that learning for learnings sake is a worthwhile end, and that
teaching them this truth is a task that literally has no end as long as they remain under our care.