It is not the same “if you study, you will feel proud” as “if you do not study, you will fail”


If we asked secondary school teachers about their main concerns when teaching, many would probably agree on one thing: the lack of interest and involvement of the students.

Spain is the OECD country (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) with the highest repetition rate: 8.7% compared to 1.9% on average for the rest of the countries . If we look at the early school leaving rate, the data does not improve. In 2020, the percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 24 who were not following any type of training was 16%, six points more than the rest of the European Union .

These data lead us to the following question: how to convince a student to get involved and put the batteries?

Positive messages and quality motivation

As a general rule, every teacher has a desire for his students to succeed. Both professionally and personally. To do this, in their day to day they try to get them to make the best possible decisions by advising them on how to behave.

For example, they can use messages of the type: “If you try, you will realize that this is super interesting” or they can use messages such as “if you don’t try, you will fail this subject.”

If we read carefully both messages we can see that the first highlights the benefits. On the contrary, the second highlights the negative consequences of not getting involved.

The reasons that encourage us to make an effort or not vary, moreover, depending on their degree of autonomy, or how external or internal they are: it can depend on ourselves (feeling more involved in the subject) or come from outside (avoid failing).

The results obtained in our research suggest that the motives used by teachers can be more effective when they highlight the benefits. That is, a student can have higher quality motivation if she focuses on what she can get in exchange for her behavior than if she focuses on avoiding something bad. In turn, this improvement in motivation would improve their academic performance.

Beyond motivation and grades

We have investigated how teachers are distinguished according to the type of message they transmit to their students in the field of motivation. Three types appear:

  1. Those who do not use any message.
  2. Those who use all kinds of messages.
  3. Those who use messages that highlight the benefits and more internal motives.

What are the consequences for a student of having one type of teacher or another? The results point to large differences. Thus, having a teacher who focuses on benefits and who uses internal reasons entails:

  • A better relationship between teacher and students.
  • Greater involvement and perseverance in achieving goals.
  • And, even more important, greater self-esteem and vitality. That is, a greater well-being in class .

Better some message than none

What about the other teachers? Well, having a teacher who tries to engage the student using external reasons and focusing on the negative consequences is better than having a teacher who does not use any type of message.

Why? Because, in this way, teachers, at least, transmit to their students the idea that they really care and want the best for them, even if they do not use the most appropriate means to achieve it.

On the contrary, those teachers who only dedicate themselves to teaching their subject without trying to involve students in it will succeed in fostering disinterest, demotivation and disengagement in their students.

More than the sum of parts

Surely the reader of this article has ever seen those images that, depending on the perspective, you can see a vase or two faces . This phenomenon describes that people do not interpret things as a sum of their parts. On the contrary, with that sum we elaborate an image of the whole that has a much more extensive meaning.

Well, the teachers’ messages also work like this . In this way, we have found that the use of messages as a whole is much more decisive than a message by itself. Thus, a message that could be negative a priori might not be so when combined with others, and vice versa.

Let’s give an example. Imagine a student with a teacher whose messages almost always highlight the benefits. This principle would explain how, in this type of teacher, a more threatening message such as “if you don’t study, you’re going to get in trouble”, used infrequently, can have a positive impact. The students, not being used to this type of message, can interpret them as a call for attention, understanding that the teacher really wants the best for them and, therefore, “getting their act together”.

A message in a bottle

As the Swiss sociologist Philippe Perrenoud put it , sending a message into a classroom full of students is like throwing a bottle into the sea: there is no guarantee that it will reach any destination.

So it’s not just about using these messages in the classroom, it’s about making students want to hear them. That is, we should become relevant to them. In this way, we would increase the chances of being heard and, somewhat more complicated, of being listened to.

Other strategies are needed to accompany the messages (such as empathy , humor or enthusiasm ).

But, without a doubt, the appropriate use of the messages turns out to be a great ally of the teacher in the face of the disinterest and lack of involvement of the students.

Author Bios:Elisa Santana Monagas is a Research Staff in Training, Jamie Leon is a University Professor and Juan Luis Nunez is a University Professor of the Area of ​​Evolutionary and Educational Psychology all at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria