Motivating Grade 6 Students

M. Lisa Enright Cornish, Beth Gallagher, Tammy Gaudun, and Kevin O’Neill 

WLU EU 401: Approaches to Motivation    

Case Study: Grade 6 Science & Technology – Biodiversity

Identify and describe the distinguishing characteristics of different groups of plants and animals (e.g., invertebrates have no spinal column; insects have three basic body parts; flowering plants produce flowers and fruits), and use these characteristics to further classify various kinds of plants and animals (e.g., invertebrates – arthropods – insects; vertebrates – mammals – primates; seed plants – flowering plants – grasses).     


Overall Expectations:

  1. Assess human impacts on biodiversity, and identify ways of preserving biodiversity.
  2. Investigate the characteristics of living things, and classify diverse organisms according to specific characteristics.
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of biodiversity, its contributions to the stability of natural systems, and its benefits to humans.

Our Plan

A sociocultural approach to motivation in the classroom emphasizes participation, identities, and interpersonal relationships within a community of learners who engage in learning activities as a part of a greater community (e.g. a classroom, a school, or a local community). It is critical that students see themselves as having an important place and identity within the context of a larger group (Woolfolk et al. 2010). Students may identify themselves as musicians, actors, artists, or scientists. Even though students may feel that they don’t know much about a subject at all, the concept of legitimate peripheral participation means that students will feel that they are genuine and integral working parts of a greater whole.     

Within our Grade 6 classroom, we will need to develop communities of practice. We will need to model positive group behaviour, and we will have to establish constructivist approaches to learning that require students to construct their own understanding and meaning by taking an active role in performing authentic tasks. This approach will be fairly straight forward to implement in the context of a science class and Biodiversity Unit, since hands-on science labs and experiments are key to each lesson. Science can be perceived as a game that we play to learn more about our world. It is a subject area that requires the development of expertise, knowledge, artistry, perseverance, and cooperation. Many science lessons (or activities) take place over several class periods, since the students not only have to conduct the investigation, but write up their observations and conclusions as well.     

In the Grade 6 Biodiversity Unit (and Science classes in general), we will establish two communities of practice. The first will focus on learning styles (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic). The second will focus on a two-tiered grouping of students that will be established within the context of the science classroom.     

1. Learning Styles.

At the beginning of the year, students will take a short survey/quiz to help them determine their learning style. Students will follow a short, but detailed list of instructions to help them make small 5”x7” cards that clearly indicate their learning style. These cards will be grouped by learning style, and displayed in a prominent place in the classroom, so that each student is aware of their learning style partners. Students in each group (i.e. auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners) will make anchor charts that will be displayed around the room. These anchor charts will highlight information necessary to help students of each style function in a classroom (e.g. auditory learners can close their eyes to help them focus) and study for tests (e.g. visual learners can highlight important points in their notes).     

In this way, the teacher can help students see commonalities that we all share; that is, we are all here to learn. At the same time, we can acknowledge that we are all different; that is, we all have different learning styles. Periodically, throughout the Biodiversity Unit, students will have the chance to come together with others who share their learning style. For example, before the unit test, students can get together in their Learning Styles Groups to: make sure their notes are up to date, make sure their notes are organized in a way that will help them learn, and help each other think of productive study strategies. Throughout the unit, students will be welcome to share a problem that they are having with someone in their learning styles group, so that the students can work together to determine useful problem solving strategies.     

2. Home Groups and Expert Groups.

In science, we are constantly doing. Within the Biodiversity Unit, we will work on lab investigations , go on short outdoor hikes, listen to lectures, participate in class discussions and debates, and apply our knowledge when working on group activities and WebQuests. The activities themselves and the products students are supposed to produce can be quite complex and detailed, but they are consistently linked and related directly to experiences the students themselves have had.     

To facilitate success for students of varying abilities and strengths, these more complex assignments will be broken up into a series of 4 smaller parts. Each part of a lab write-up, or WebQuest, etc., will correspond to a particular, pre-established role, and will be completed by one student in each working group of not more than 4 students. These working groups will be called Home Groups. This means that each student member of a Home Group would be assigned a specific role within the context of the Science classroom. At the beginning of the year, a role would be assigned to each student, and students would rotate through each role. Also, at the beginning of the year, students would be assigned to their Home Group . Later in the year, the students may be allowed to choose their own partners (roles would still rotate so that each student learns to perform each task successfully.) Perhaps even later in the year, students would be allowed to choose their own roles as well.     

Groups will be organized into two tiers. The top-most tier, discussed above, is the Home Group. This group will work together during lab experiments and other group projects. Each member of the group will be assigned one of the following roles: the writer, the artist, the editor (responsible for editing and/or typing up the group’s report), and the researcher (responsible for references in print or on the internet). Therefore, each student in the group will be responsible for contributing to the final product, which could be a lab report, poster, or other group project. We will do one lab experiment and one lab report together as a class so that every student is familiar with every role before they have to perform any one role independently. Students will also be taught to determine what productive and supportive group work looks, feels, and sounds like before they have to assume individualized roles within their Home Group. It is hoped that these preparations will set each student up for success. Being able to observe each student early in the year, when activities are done together as a class, should enable the teacher to identify students who might run into challenges with this type of work, and take appropriate, cooperative steps with these students to facilitate their success.     

The second tier is the Expert Group. There will be one expert group for each of the four roles (i.e. the Writers’ Group, the Artists’ Group, the Editors’ Group, and the Researchers’ Group). The experts will be responsible for getting together during the class time provided to consult with their educational collegues and work toward the improvement of their final product. Each member of each expert group would of course report back to their home group and continue to work on their home group’s assignment. Lab reports and other end products of group work will be given a group mark. Students will evaluate the performance of their home and expert groups in a very simple way at the end of each task. (e.g. Level 4: all students in our group contributed a great deal to the group’s discussion and always came prepared to work. Level 1: none of us contributed to our group’s discussion, and we rarely came to class prepared to work.) Note that students will not evaluate the individuals in their group. Instead, each student will evaluate the ability of the groups themselves to perform the task as assigned.     

When the Home or Expert groups come together to work on a group project or lab investigation, the class will stress the use of constructive criticism and the idea of a critical friend. Constructive talk will be modeled extensively, especially early in the year, and positive reinforcement will be used to encourage the use of positive language that supports students as they each work to improve their work and develop proficiency at a given task. As the members bring their “expert” knowledge back to their home groups, students will constantly be interacting with different peers in varying capacities. This should reinforce the concept of the class as a team of learners that cooperatively works together toward a common goal. Differences, strengths and weaknesses can be acknowledged and celebrated!     

In a sociocultural setting, it will always be necessary to consider the needs of those students who are not comfortable working in a group setting (e.g. withdrawn students), or those who are uncomfortable working with their peers (e.g. students in the “out” crowd), especially those with low self esteem. It will also be necessary to consider the unique needs of students with exceptionalities (e.g. giftedness or ADHD). In these cases, we can use the TARGET model for supporting student motivation to learn (Woolfolk et al. 2010) to evaluate our sociocultural classroom strategies.     

Task: Connections will be made between the learning activities and the backgrounds and experiences of the students. Within each different grouping (class, home, and expert groups), students will be able to set goals and regulate their attainment of these goals.     


Autonomy/Choice: Students will eventually be able to choose their own working group, and their role within the group. Students will take responsibility for their roles and will be held accountable by their home and expert groups; that is, students will hold themselves accountable first. Secondarily, the teacher will hold each group of students accountable for producing a final product.     


Recognition: It is hoped that through self-evaluation and the use of positive reinforcement, students will continually recognize the improvement and hard work of their peers as they use the models of constructive criticism and critical friends.     


Grouping: Opportunities will be provided for cooperative learning, problem solving and decision making. Acceptance and appreciation of all students is built into this framework. The range of social interactions is broad, since students will belong to multiple communities of practice (class, learning style, home, and expert groups) This will provide students with exceptionalities or students who are uncomfortable in group settings with a range of peer interaction. In addition, students will be moving around the classroom, which will help kinesthetic learners. Students will be talking to each other; this will help auditory learners. Visual learners will likely excel at the written and/or artistic parts of each assignment.     


Evaluation: The overriding goals and standards for the Biodiversity Unit and specific projects will be set as a class. It will be difficult to correlate academic achievement with social status since groups will continually change. Students will have multiple opportunities to improve by consulting with their expert and learning style groups.     


Time: Science classes allow extended time for significant student involvement. Students will progress at their own rate, within their groups. If students achieve their goals and finish their work early, they can assist or be an expert for other groups.     

This is a flexible framework for teaching that can be bent to meet the needs of many different types of learners. However, it is certainly possible that this sociocultural approach will not motivate everyone to learn. By focusing on the role the student plays in the learning activity, the learning behaviour of the student, and the support that one student can give another, this motivational plan creates a learning environment where individual students can improve. Using positive language to reinforce this behaviour will hopefully communicate to all students that their abilities are indeed improvable! This should help them set mastery goals (as opposed to performance goals) and it should help students handle failure (if it were to ever happen!) constructively.     


Justification for the Sociocultural Approach to Motivation

Originally applied by Vygotsky, the sociocultural approach to motivation is based on the concept that human activities take place in cultural contexts and are mediated by language. Its strength lies in the interdependence between individual and social processes in the construction of knowledge. A classroom which provides sociocultural motivation generates engaged participation where students can be simultaneously motivated by extrinsic incentives in the environment (peers) and by the intrinsically human desire to make sense of new information (self) (Hickey and Zuiker, 2005).     

We choose the sociocultural approach to motivation for the Grade 6 biodiversity unit is because the two are conceptually similar.  A central element of biodiversity is the ecosystem.   If we understand an ecosystem to be “an ecological community, together with its environment, functioning as a unit,” (Finders and Hinds, 2003) we can begin to see how it serves as a powerful metaphor for a classroom of students motivated by a sociocultural approach.      

“Sociocultural conceptions of motivation emphasize participation in communities of practice. People engage in activities to develop knowledge as they maintain their identities and their interpersonal relations within a community” (Woolfolk et al. 2009). Permitting our classroom to resemble an ecosystem where every learner is permitted their own identity yet is encouraged to nurture relationships with one another would seem to be a good model from which to teach biodiversity. In Grade 6, students are asked to understand the different classifications of species. They learn the animals’ structural characteristics in a scientific way.  No one species is deemed more valuable; the entire ecosystem depends upon one another. During a recent practicum, a Grade 6 teacher used the well-known child’s game Jenga to teach the concept of biodiversity. She showed the class that if you remove too many blocks, the tower will fall. She said Jenga is like an ecosystem, in that the blocks are interdependent: if you remove too many species, the system will eventually cease to exist.     

A lesson about biodiversity should have the same culture; every child should be valued for their role – whether it is that of a beginner or expert. “The concept of legitimate peripheral participation means that beginners are genuinely involved in the work of the small group, even if their abilities are undeveloped and their contributions are small at first (Woolfoolk et al. 2009). During a biodiversity lesson in a practicum, an associate teacher put the children into small heterogeneous groups of four and asked them to work together to compile a list of structural characteristics of various species. The content was fairly dry, but the sociocultural approach to the lesson gave the classroom the energy of a treasure hunt as each group went around the room, searching for information through books and on the Internet.   It became clear that some of the children were more “expert” sleuths; however, by the end of the lesson everyone seemed to have a better grasp of how to find information about vertebrates and invertebrates. It was not difficult to imagine how different the lesson may have been had the teacher simply lectured to the students about structural characteristics and scientific classification theory. A more advanced experiment with sociocultural motivation has been reported in a study of fourth-grade science students. Researchers found that an online forum for science discussions greatly improved and deepened the work of 22 nine and ten-year-olds. “As results indicate, these fourth graders raised authentic problems—problems of understanding resulting from their monitoring of the world around them . . . Each student contributed notes, to multiple and appropriate inquiry threads, identifying their personal problems of understanding and posing insightful questions, reporting self-generated experiments, observations, empirical findings, authoritative sources, and, in many cases, presenting evidence for their ideas. . .” (Zhang et al. 2007).     

While this paper presents a variety of reasons why a sociocultural approach enriches science lessons, research suggests it’s an approach that could enrich all areas of the curriculum.   “The idea of an intricate balance among all members of a community or classroom should be at the heart of middle school teaching.” (Finders and Hinds. 2003).     


Critique: Cognitive Approach to Motivation

Cognitive theories of motivation tell us that behaviour is guided by how we process and interpret incoming information based on previous knowledge and experience. Our past experiences lead to expectations of outcomes which then direct ones behaviour towards a desired goal. As a result behaviour is based on cognition, or an individual’s thoughts, rather than a predetermined series of instructions.     

In addressing how cognitive theories of motivation could be used in a classroom setting, it is also important to note that there are two forms of cognitive motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation refers to acts that are rewarding in and of themselves. An example of this in a classroom setting might be solving a problem, completing a fun activity, or learning something new. Extrinsic motivation originates in external factors and classroom examples might be working for praise or for rewards and could involve performing actions in order to avoid punishment. These examples of course give rise to the conclusion that cognitive motivation is based on the mental process of weighing the pros and cons, or costs and benefits, of a given task or action. This would be the same process a person would undergo if the motivation be intrinsic, extrinsic or a combination of both at the same time. An important result of this of course is that in a classroom setting a child would weigh all the different factors in deciding what they will do.     

While cognitive motivation can be similar to socialcultural motivation in the respect that both are influenced by intrinsic and extrinsic sources, the socialcultural approach would be a better choice in a unit based on biodiversity. Instead of focusing on the individual, the sociocultural approach mirrors the unit itself in how the focus is participation in a community and the interdependence of both the individual and their surroundings.     

Critique: Humanism Approach to Motivation

Humanistic interpretations of motivation emphasize personal freedom, choice, self-determination and striving for person growth. They emphasize the “natural desire” of everyone to learn, true, but they do not emphasize the natural desire to learn every subject. Proponents of Humanism also maintain that learners need to be empowered and to have control over the learning process, so the teacher must relinquish a great deal of authority and becomes a facilitator. What would this look like in a grade 6 classroom setting?     

Children at every age can experience an powerful desire to learn, to explore, to become an expert, whether it is a 5-year old who strives learn everything there is to know about dinosaurs, a 10-year old who discovers the joy of reading an devours every book she can get her hands on, .or a young adolescent who already has an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and songs. In these informal situations, children pursue learning for its own sake with tremendous intensity, becoming so absorbed that time seems to pass by quickly, and learning is pursued for its own sake (Cambourne, 2002).     

Ideally, all grade 6 students would be eager to learn about biodiversity, just like ideally, all husbands would be motivated to keep their rooms clean. In reality, students may have other factors going on that detract from their intrinsic motivation, they may not connect with the teacher or the subject, or they may just be disaffected, reluctant, or even resistant toward a particular learning task.     

The key idea here is that students must pick their own passion in life. Teachers cannot assume that all of their students are intrinsically driven to excel at every subject. Therefore, it is a teacher’s job to find other sources of motivation for students until they are old enough to determine their own paths, which is why we did not choose Humanism as our motivation approach for grade 6 Biodiversity.     

Critique: Behavioural Approach to Motivation

The behavioural approach to motivation is particularly problematic for a Grade 6 biodiversity unit because of the nature of the content we are trying to teach. To use an approach to motivation that relies heavily on immediate rewards and consequences in the classroom undermines the foundational principles of biodiversity. As educators, we strive to facilitate discussions in our classroom and make sound choices based on science, not on whether or not we will get a reward, or whether our actions will have an immediate consequence. History has taught us that the lessons of biodiversity are taught over the long term; the rewards and consequences of the choices we make today affect generations for years to come. Therefore, we cannot hope to support our learners in their quest for scientific knowledge with a gold star.     

These particular concerns around the biodiversity lesson are just part of a larger issue around the use of rewards and punishments in the classroom. U.S. educator and writer Alfie Kohn has documented in his 1999 book, Punished by Rewards, how rewards actually undermine student motivation. Among many concerns about rewards, Kohn points out that there is substantial research that suggests giving students rewards actually inhibits their motivation to complete tasks.     

During an October practicum, a teacher tried to motivate her students to complete their task of answering some questions out of their science texts with a reward. It was late in the day, and the Grade 6 class was working in groups to complete their worksheets. When the teacher announced that the first group to get all the answers correct would get a candy, many students did begin to work feverishly to complete the task. The difficulty arose, however, when several groups finished roughly at the same time. The teacher couldn’t possibly check all their work at once and so had to choose a group. The group that ended up getting the candy won the reward not because they were actually first to complete the task, but rather because they were closest to where the teacher was standing. Another student was completely demoralized by the experience because she has a learning disability. She was heard to say that there was no use doing the worksheet because there was no chance she would ever be first in the class. The whole reward system left all but the winning group, a group of level 4 students incidentally, with a sour mood. The focus of their discussions was not on the knowledge they were supposed to be building, but rather on the inherent unfairness of the reward system. While using a system of behavioural approaches in our class may appear to get students to complete their work in the short-term, we believe a longer view is appropriate when dealing with the hearts and minds of budding scientists.     











Cambourne, B. (2002). The conditions of learning: Is learning natural? Reading Teacher, 55(8), 758-762.     

Finders, M. and Hynds, M. (2003) Language Arts and Literacy in the Middle Grades. Columbus,             Ohio: Pearson Ltd.     

Hickey, D., & Zuiker, S. (2005). Engaged Participation: A Sociocultural Model of Motivation With Implications for Educational Assessment. Educational Assessment, 10(3), 277-305., doi:10.1207/s15326977ea1003_7     

Woolfolk, A. E., Winne, P. H., Perry, N. E., & Shapka, J. (2010). Educational Psychology, 4th Canadian Edition, 4/E. Toronto: Pearson.     

Woolfolk. A., Winne, P., Perry, N. (2009). Educational Psychology. Toronto: Pearson Canada.     

Zhang, J., Scardamalia, M. Lamon, M. Messina, R., Reeve, R. (2007). “Socio-cognitive dynamics        of knowledge building in the work of 9 and 10-year-olds.” Education Technology      Research Development. 55: 117-145.     

One thought on “Motivating Grade 6 Students

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