What Motivates Gifted Students?

What Motivates Gifted Students?

In their article, “Honors Students’ Perceptions of Their High School Experiences: The influence of Teachers on Student Motivation,” Del Siegle et al. explore what motivates gifted students in high school. Specifically, the authors investigate teachers’ characteristics and practices that help motivate high-achieving students (36). For this study, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with four separate focus groups, each consisting of between 6-8 freshmen at a top-ranked public university. 71% of the focus group participants were female and every participant graduated in the top 4% of his or her high school class (39). These students were all academically successful and had valuable information to share about how teachers motivated them throughout high school.

The Findings:

“Students overwhelmingly attributed their interest and motivation to their experiences with their teachers” (40).

  • Teachers were the main motivating factor for students: “While students discussed home and peers to some extent, the majority of their comments focused on the school and more specifically on the teacher. Teachers were the determining factor in whether the students did their best work or just enough to get the grade they wanted” (44).
  • Students were inspired to try to their best when teachers built positive, personal relationships: “This included when teachers demonstrated that they cared about their students, knew them personally, and were interested in helping them succeed” (41).
    • Participants liked when teachers attended after-school events, such as soccer games, or when teachers used students’ names on test questions.
  • Students did not appreciate when teachers became overly-friendly and crossed a professional boundary (41).
  • Students were inspired by teachers who had in-depth content knowledge and could make interdisciplinary and real-world connections (41).
  • Siegle et al. note that “the students in [the] focus groups realized that poor content knowledge limited the number of instructional strategies that were available to the teacher; such teachers did not stray from the textbook or venture into discussions with their students” (41).
  • Students were motivated most by assignments that were challenging and that were perceived as “valuable and worth their time” (42).
  • Students found content that they could explore in depth exciting and inspiring.
  • Students “loved courses that moved at a faster pace” (42).
  • Students had lower academic performance in classes that were slower paced and less challenging (42).
  • Students viewed grades as a “necessary evil”; they were motivated by grades “when the content was not challenging or meaningful” (43).
  • Students appreciated when teachers had high expectations (43).

“These students believed that effective teachers empowered them. The teachers instilled a sense of pride in doing quality work and increased students’ confidence in students’ ability by helping students become competent in subject content. They changed the way students saw the world and helped them make connections while recognizing and developing students’ interests” (44).

  • Students appreciated when AP teachers sufficiently prepared students to take the AP exam and were frustrated when AP teachers did not prepare them well (44).
  • Students found “boring” content meaningful if they perceived it as developing useful skills, such as those needed to pass the AP exam, to succeed in college, or to help them in future career paths or life in general (44).
  • Students stated that they were “motivated by passionate, hard-working teachers who used a variety of delivery methods” (45).

“They found that the enthusiasm teachers showed for the content became contagious” (45).

  • Students appreciated when teachers put extra effort into teaching. Siegle et al. note that “students were more likely to put forth extra effort if they witnessed their teacher putting forth extra effort” (45).
  • Students did not find one particular teaching method the most effective or important; they valued and appreciated when teachers used a variety of teaching methods (45).
  • Students were motivated when teachers gave students some responsibility to learn material (45).
  • Students valued class discussions if they included Socratic dialogue: “However, simply holding a discussion was not considered good teaching” (45).
  • Students were more likely to put consistent effort into a class when they perceived the teacher as being passionate about the content (47).

To end their article, Siegle et al. emphasize how important it is that teachers of gifted students have qualities that are like the gifted students themselves. They remark that “gifted students have advanced content knowledge and creativity that require a confident teacher to field their questions and learn with them” (47).


Paper Title:  Honors Students’ Perceptions of Their High School Experiences: The Influence of Teachers on Student Motivation

Authors: Del Siegle (University of Connecticut), Lisa DaVia Rubenstein (Ball State University, IN), and Melissa S. Mitchell (Ellsworth Elementary Middle School, ME)

Full Paper Link:  http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0016986213513496

Published: Gifted Child Quarterly, Volume 58, No. 1, 2013, Pages 35-50


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