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A Personality Test to Motivate Your Students that Comes with a Surprisingly Effective Tactic

Happiness guru Gretchen Rubin created this framework to help people make better habits for themselves, but it's also a helpful lens to think about motivating students.

In her book, Better Than Before, she explains there are four "tendencies":

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations. Upholders easily get stuff done. 
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves. Obligers need a buddy system or a teacher keeping tabs on them. 
  • Questioners question all expectations. They’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense. Questioners ask you "Why" a million times. 
  • Rebels-- as you might guess-- resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. It's the smallest group but the hardest to motivate.

You can take a quiz here to find out your tendency, though I've found it's often immediately apparent to people.

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Students also display these tendencies, which you can use to your advantage.

Upholders are the students who always do the work assigned to them-- they're the "easy" students. Giving them "gold stars" that provide positive reinforcement to their meeting expectations will already be enough to thrill them. 

Obligers do well when there's clear external accountability-- as their teacher or parent, you can fill this role. So as long as you're on your clear expectations and how you are following up, Obligers will likely succeed. This is my tendency. This is why in high school, even though I generally did well on tests, I had to take a boring SAT prep class because I needed an instructor to force me to take those practice tests. Even though I had a test prep book and I wanted to study on my own, as an Obliger, I just couldn't get myself to do it.

Questioners keep us as educators on top of our game. They need to be fully convinced of the value of something before doing it. Questioners don't let us get away with assigning useless tasks. My husband, a big questioner, was the student who would make deals with his teachers to skip the homework as long as he did well on the tests. If the purpose of homework was to prepare you for tests, why not prove he could do just as well without it? 

Rebels are the tricky ones. They don't want to be told what to do. They like freedom and choice-- which is why they tend to prefer open-ended coding platforms like Scratch, where you can create your own projects without needing to follow a defined sequence of steps.

Rubin highlights a fascinating tactic that works for rebels: Identity.

Rebels want to be true to themselves, so they'll do something readily if they view it as an essential aspect of their identity. Even if they don't necessarily like a particular task, they'll do it if it appeals to the kind of person they think they are.

With students, this can sometimes manifest itself in negative ways-- for example, "cool kids" who exclude others because they perceive it as something a cool kid should do. 

But, as educators we can use Identity in a constructive way by helping students develop a positive identify that they might not have otherwise had.  

We call our elementary students our "super coders". Whenever we ask for a "super coder" to come up in front of the class to demonstrate something, all hands shoot up in the air. The kids are eager to work on their assignments both because it's fun but also because it affirms their identity as a super coder using their super coder powers. 

(For middle and high school classes, we use "programmer" or "developer", to match professional industry language). 

The stereotypical image adults have of a computer programmer is a young white guy in a hoodie. There's a lot of truth to that now-- but with this strategy, we can change that.

We know that currently girls and students of color are less likely to go into computer science. These students won't see themselves as computer scientists unless we help them experience it.

This tactic is vital for Rebels but actually works great across the personality types, particularly for long term motivation. If a student is an Upholder/Obliger, it will be easy for you to get them to do a specific task in the short-term-- but how do you translate that into something that they see themselves continuing to work on, even as a grown up?

Helping students visualize themselves in this identity and giving them the opportunity to feel early success as a programmer sets the stage for them to pursue these paths as adults.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes! jen(at)

If you're a teacher who wants an "Hour of Code" activity you can use with your students, check out our resources here. (No previous coding experience required.)