The always incredible Sarah Doane (@SaDoane) led the weekly Arts Ed Chat on Twitter with this question:
How can we motivate students who always finish projects early, but clearly need to do more?

It’s a great question, and one that deserves some extensive discussion because I think art teachers of all levels deal with the situation on a regular basis. I picked up a lot of great ideas from the discussion, and want to share my own after I tried simplify my thoughts into a few points. After comparing notes/stealing ideas from the twitter feed, I think I’ve got it broken down into five: Displaying Work, Using Specific Criteria, Positivity, Differentiation, and Developing Patience. What I do:

Displaying Work
I am not a big fan of showing examples before projects get started (for a lot of reasons, but that’s another discussion).  I am, however, quick to hang good projects as they are finished. Seeing what their peers have accomplished can be a great motivator for kids to develop the finish touches needed on their work.  Kids whose work goes up on the wall obviously feel that sense of accomplishment, and sometimes not getting their work hung can keep kids going until their work is good enough to get up on the wall.

One other thing we do with hanging is to rank and replace.  Let’s say we have 6 works on the wall–we rank them from best to worst.  And when new work is finished, we rank the new work against the 6 already up.  If it’s not good enough, they can work on it more.  If it is good enough, we decide where it goes–If it’s the third best painting, then #6 gets taken down, and 3, 4, and 5 all move down a spot.

Specific Criteria
For grading our projects, we use a blank rubric that we call a criteria sheet.  There are always 5 criteria listed, and they are specific to that project.  Students write down the criteria after it is explained, and the rubric is taped to the back of the artwork. There, it can serve as a reminder for what we are looking for with that project.  In addition, the same 5 criteria are listed on the board throughout the duration of the project–an easy reference for students, and more importantly, a quick place to direct their attention when I am asking for more from them.  For example, if colored pencil is not laid down with enough layers, I will ask the student about criterion #4–Solid, Layered Colors.  Ask if they have accomplished that, and if not, there is a specific concept they need to develop and likely a specific place on the work which needs the extra effort.

Build. On. Successes.  Every little one of them. This is KEY for those kids who refuse to even get started. If I can get even a couple of lines drawn by that student, those will be the best lines I’ve seen all day.  The next day, I can ask for a couple of objects to be drawn.  If there’s anything good about the drawings, I will focus on those features. If I can’t find anything good about what has been drawn, I’ll praise the student’s effort.  Each day after, I ask for more and more, and praise, praise, praise at every step.  Positivity may be the best motivational tool I have.

Differentiation/Managing Expectations
Some students lack motivation because they feel overwhelmed by what they are being asked to do. They shut down, or rush through their work just to finish it–if they know they can’t accomplish what they would like, they just get it out of the way as quickly as possible. If we can manage those expectations, we can set students up for success.  On an individual basis, maybe we simplify the criteria or work on a smaller size. Making the assignment more manageable often makes students more willing to work; it’s easier to see what they need to do to be successful.

On the other hand, some students will rush because they aren’t being challenged enough–in this case, I work bigger, add criteria, or show an additional technique. If students are challenged, interested, and engaged, they will not be rushing through their work. Differentiation is the best way to stop the end of project problems before they even begin.

Developing Patience
More than anything, this quote from Sarah got me thinking: “Life has become so fast paced. I sometimes wonder if kids have ability to slow down and work to a high level of craftsmanship.”  I would argue that our kids do have that ability, but it needs to be developed.  Think of patience as a skill–it can be worked on, improved, practiced, and developed.

As a high school teacher, I spend four full years with my best students; this obviously isn’t plausible for every teacher, so I appreciate how lucky I am to have that opportunity. Because I have the time to develop students’ work ethic, I place a high priority on that skill and work consistently to develop it in my students–all of my motivational tools are working slowly toward that goal.  From day one, I talk about my appreciation for both students and artists that work hard.  We look at Kent Bellows and Richard Estes, famous artists that spend hundreds of hours on their work.  I show my colored pencil drawings that can take 40 hours for a 5” x 7” drawing, and show student projects that showcase the work ethic I want to see.  I do all of this trying to get the idea across that it’s okay to work really, really hard on your art.  Projects get more and more difficult and time consuming as they advance through classes, and students see the benefits of putting everything they have into their work.  By the time they are seniors, they are willing and able to give up 100 hours or more for a single work.  And these are the types of work that can come about when you spend that kind of time:

When artwork of that quality is hanging in the art room, ALL of my students see where extra effort can take them. It’s a big jump from a little extra effort today to that end goal four years down the road, but we have to start somewhere.

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