Stop Wrestling, Start Dancing: Supporting Student Success with Motivational Interviewing

Posted July 31, 2018

By Jeni Dulek


Brian is a first-generation college student with a family, full-time job, and a history of starts and stops in his community college education. He’s enrolled in four classes this semester—one of which he’s already failed once—and just a few weeks in, he’s already behind. He struggles to come to class on time—and sometimes doesn’t come at all. He skips assignments here and there, never the larger term projects, but he has missed enough of the formative assignments that his instructor is concerned about his progress. When she emails him about it, he doesn’t respond. When she attempts to discuss it with him after class, he shrugs and tells her he’s doing his best, but he’s got three other classes and a lot of things going on his life.

The Righting Reflex

Brian’s instructor knows a little about his life outside of school, but still can’t help question whether he’s truly motivated to learn. She recognizes that his failure to engage with her via email and in person is at least in part due to his hectic schedule, but she finds herself thinking, “If he really cared about school, wouldn’t he make the time to meet with me?”

Her thought process is a familiar one for me, and probably for many other college instructors, too. When we think about our students’ lives in relation to their educational goals and performance, so many of us start our thoughts with “You would think . . .”

You would think that low grades would cause her to come to office hours . . . join a study group . . . cut back work hours . . . show up to class on time . You would think that failing a class would . . .

You get the picture. As instructors we know what students need to do to be successful, if only they would heed our suggestions. When we do get a chance to speak with them about their performance in our courses, whether academic or behavioral, the temptation is to fill the conversation with these suggestions. This is known as the righting reflex, and while it’s certainly well-intentioned it’s often useless. Students don’t need to be told how to fix their problems; they need to find the motivation to change things for themselves. 

“But that’s what I’m doing when I offer them suggestions!” you may find yourself thinking. The problem is, students have likely already considered these solutions and found some reason or another why they won’t work. “Come to office hours? I have to get home so my wife can take the car to work.” “Comply with school dress code? I can’t afford the shoes you’re requiring me to wear.” “Cut back on work hours? I’ve already done that once and my boss said he’ll fire me if I cut back any more.” So in reality, you aren’t motivating students by offering these suggestions, just giving them a reason to argue against them.


While change itself may happen quickly, getting ready to change takes time. Ambivalence is part of that “getting ready,” and it’s a normal human experience. “Should I change, or am I comfortable with the way things are?” we ask ourselves—about our careers, relationships, weight, and about nearly everything in life. We are constantly considering if doing something different would be possible, would help us reach our goals, or would make sense for us at this time. Sometimes we see many good reasons for change and we proceed; other times we decide it isn’t worth it, we aren’t ready, or we need to figure out a way to change in the future.

Our students are no different. One part of a student’s mind may want to change something about how he is going about school, but the other part argues against it. So when out of care and concern we approach a student with all the reasons why and how he should change, that part of the student’s brain that argues against change gets fired up and engaged. The student focuses on all the reasons why he can’t change, and stays stuck—sometimes failing a course, getting dismissed from school, or dropping out as a result.

Wrestling and Resistance

We often label this state of “stuck” as resistance, and in turn label the student who is experiencing it as “resistant.” We may experience our interactions as wrestling matches, with the student countering each move we make, seemingly entrenched in not allowing us to “help” him or her move forward. What we fail to realize here is that in attempting to provide the help, we actually caused the resistance by how we approached the conversation. Resistance doesn’t reside within the person but comes out of the interaction. This is good news—because we can’t control other people, but we can influence the kinds of interactions we have with them!

Motivational Interviewing

That’s where Motivational Interviewing, or MI, comes in. Simply put, Motivational Interviewing is a way of talking with people about change that can help resolve ambivalence and identify their own reasons to change. Notice that I said “talking with people” rather than “talking to” them. This is one of the key concepts in MI; it’s a collaborative approach that takes the instructor or counselor out of the expert role and recognizes that the student is the expert about his or her own life. Using MI leads to conversations focusing on the student’s perspective, beliefs, and desires rather than our own, and when it works, students make the arguments for change rather than against it; interactions become more of a dance than a wrestling match as the instructor allows the student to take the lead and matches his steps along the way.

MI originated in the 1980s as a technique used in the treatment of substance abuse, and since then has been applied and proven to be effective in many other situations requiring behavior change. I was originally trained to use MI with clients who have co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse, so when I started teaching in an occupational therapy program and encountered students who needed support in changing their behaviors, its practice immediately came to mind. I did some reading and found that it has indeed been researched in educational settings at both the K-12 and college levels.

Recent research has demonstrated the use of MI with helping students to make changes such as studying for exams (Reich, Sharp, & Berman, 2015), arriving on time to class, submitting assignments, participating in class discussion, improving compliance with policies, engaging in positive peer interaction, and seeking assistance from instructors and peers (Herman, Reinke, Frey, & Shepard, 2014; Rollnick, Kaplan, & Rutschman, 2016; Sheldon, 2010; White, Gazewood, & Mounsey, 2007). The best part for me as a busy instructor and program director is that most of these changes were demonstrated after just 15-20 minute interactions between students and instructors using MI.

Using MI with Students

MI not only can work quickly, it is fairly simple to learn. That doesn’t mean that it won’t take practice to master, but some basic knowledge and a willingness to try will set you on a path of dancing with your students toward change.

To establish that basic knowledge, let me introduce to you the spirit of MI and what are known as its “core skills.” I should point out before we begin that there are many other elements and skills useful in MI, including its principles and strategies. There are countless books, workshops, and other resources that can help you build your MI skills, and I encourage you to explore them. I will list a few at the end of this post for your reference. Keep in mind, too, that formal training in MI is available around the country and is well worth the investment. What I offer here should get you going in using MI and hopefully will spark your curiosity and passion to learn more.

The Spirit of MI

One of the primary things to keep in mind when learning and practicing MI is called “the spirit of motivational interviewing.” This sets MI apart from the more manipulative, sometimes pushy-salesperson-type approach that gets people to do things they don’t actually want to do. The goal with MI is to help clients resolve ambivalence so that they can take action toward their own goals and desires.

I’ve already mentioned collaboration, which is one of these vital aspects of the MI spirit. MI is done with and for students in a partnership toward change. It is not up to the instructor to tell the student what to do, but to guide the student in identifying the changes that he wants to make and figuring out how to make that happen. This shows respect for the student and honors the student’s expertise in his own situation and aspirations.

The second aspect of the MI spirit is acceptance. This key to MI means that while the instructor may not approve of the student’s choices or behaviors, there is a recognition that the student has strengths and a respect for the student’s autonomy.

The next consideration when using MI is compassion. This highlights the importance of helping students make changes that benefit them, not us. That’s not to say that the things we may help students change won’t be rewarding to us, but that we must focus on what our students choose for themselves, even if that means them making no change at all.

And lastly, we have evocation. The idea here is that students have within them the strengths and knowledge to be successful. While I recognize that there is always room to help students learn how to study more effectively, communicate more clearly, or present themselves more professionally, I know that my pre-MI attempts to cajole them into doing this got me—and them—nowhere. It isn’t until the student finds the motivation to make these changes that any advice I might give will be useful, so I choose instead to focus on helping my students evoke from within them exactly what they need to be successful. I look at ambivalence as the proof that students already have the arguments for change in their minds, and my role is to help bring these about so that students can use them to prompt action.

Core Skills of MI

Now that we have covered the spirit of MI, which will lay the foundation for you as you approach your students, you’re probably wondering “But what do I do? How do I know what to say in these conversations with my students?” That’s where the core skills of MI come in. They are: open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and summaries. As an acronym, this spells “OARS,” and they can be seen as the paddles that move your boat forward.

Open-ended questions are common in education, and have a pretty simple definition: Questions that can’t be responded to with a yes or no, but that require elaboration to sufficiently be answered. Asking something like,” What have you done in the past to keep up with your schoolwork?” can get students talking and sharing their perspectives rather than just agreeing (or disagreeing) with whatever their instructor has suggested. Asking open-ended questions of students helps them hear their own thoughts and to share them with you. This builds awareness and rapport.

Affirmations highlight students’ strengths and successes. They affirm for the student that he or she has been successful in the past and can do it again. An affirmation in MI shouldn’t come from you as the expert, but from what you’re hearing the student say about himself and his experiences. As an example, if a student responded to the open-ended question above by saying, “I used to have more energy to stay up late and get my homework done; sometimes I had to pull all-nighters,” I might respond by affirming the student’s dedication to his schoolwork, even if it seemed apparent that that wasn’t happening currently in my course. When students focus only on their struggles and problems in conversation, you might point out, “You’re talking with me today because learning is important to you.” Affirming students’ strengths and positive attributes helps to instill hope and generate motivation to try again.

The “R” in OARS stands for reflections, which is the most powerful of the core skills. Reflections of both content and feelings demonstrate that you’ve listened to the student and that you understand his perspective, and can help move the interaction forward by allowing the student to process what he has said. During conversation about improving in-class behavior, a student once told me all the reasons why her eye-rolling, arm-crossing, and sarcastic comments were justified. When I reflected these comments by stating, “Your instructor doesn’t deserve respect because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” she was taken aback, and went on to tell me several reasons why the instructor actually did deserve her respect. Pretty soon she was asking me to let her know if she ever demonstrated this behavior in the classroom again! That is how powerful a reflection can be. Good MI technique uses more reflections than any of the other core skills for this reason.

The last core skill is “S” for summaries, which are basically a collection of reflections. Summaries allow the instructor and the student to pause and reflect on what they have discussed, and to decide together what should happen next.   

Back to Brian

We began here by considering the case of Brian, a student struggling to come to class on time, skipping assignments, and dismissing his instructor’s attempts to reach out. Could a motivational interviewing approach have helped both Brian and his instructor explore and hopefully resolve this situation?

We don’t know much about how Brian’s instructor first approached him to talk about his performance, but if it was anything like how I used to approach my students, it was not with the collaboration, acceptance, and compassion that is the spirit of MI. Instead, it may have been something like, “Brian, you’re at risk for failing this class again. You’re not putting in the time you need, and you really need to work harder at this. You’re repeating the same behaviors you did last time, and that did not work out well for you. If you fail again, it’s going to cost you even more money and time. As your instructor, I recommend that you start getting to class on time and studying harder. You really need to pass this class.” With the instructor’s righting reflex, Brian’s defenses go up and he argues against change, sharing all of the reasons why these changes that she suggests are not possible—exactly the opposite of what the instructor intends and what Brian really needs.

With the concepts of MI in mind, the instructor’s approach moves away from the judgmental, authoritarian style that likely shut Brian down and caused him to shrug and say he was doing his best. Instead, motivational interviewing leads the instructor to partner with Brian to examine his situation and determine what, if any, changes he is motivated to make to improve his school performance. The goal is a conversation where Brian takes the lead in identifying his goals, strengths, and necessary actions, and the instructor simply guides him in this process:

Instructor: “I asked to meet with you today so we could talk a little about class. What are your experiences and thoughts about your performance so far?”

Brian: “I know I’ve been late a few times, and have missed a few assignments, but there’s just so much going on in my life right now. I’m doing the best I can.”

Instructor: “There’s some things getting in the way of you concentrating fully on class, and you’re doing everything within your power to focus on school.”

Brian: “Yeah. I mean, we only have one car between my wife and me so I have to drop her at work and the kids at school before I come to class. I’m working more so that we can buy another car, but that means less time for homework. I’m hoping to get another car next month, but until then, this is just the way it has to be.”

Instructor: “You’d like to focus on school more, and you plan to as soon as you’ve taken care of this setback with the car.”

Brian: “That’s the plan, yeah. School is important to me. I wouldn’t be doing all of this if it wasn’t. I would have withdrawn by now because this is really hard for me. And my family.”

Instructor: “You and your family are making many sacrifices for your education and a better future. What that means right now is that you may not get the grades you are capable of because sometimes you have to come late and miss assignments.” 

From here, they could go on to further explore what he had tried so far to address these barriers, but instead of focusing on these as reasons for his academic difficulties and reinforcing his belief that they are unchangeable, the focus would be on exploring how these issues align with Brian’s goals and steps that he might take to begin to change them. By reinforcing Brian’s strengths and highlighting his dedication to school even in the face of such barriers, the instructor could assist Brian to resolve his ambivalence and resistance, and begin to elicit motivation from within him to make changes to support his academic success.

Next Steps

My hope is that reading about Brian has helped you to examine your own views of student motivation and to see the possibilities of eliciting and evoking the motivation to change from within your own students. Just as in the sample interaction above, motivational interviewing has broadened my understanding of the challenges facing my students and has deepened my appreciation for the attempts they have made to focus on their learning, even when these attempts have not always resulted in success. It places the responsibility for change in the hands of my students while communicating my belief in them to find the resources and make and carry out plans to improve their likelihood of success. Changing my own approach to one of partnership and true respect has helped move interactions with students away from frustration and conflict to understanding and encouragement. The motivation that they have uncovered in the process has led to stronger communication skills, increased engagement, and improved academic success—and to dancing instead of wrestling.


Dr. Jeni Dulek is an occupational therapist, educator, and lifelong learner. She is a founding member and Program Director of the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at American Career College in Anaheim, California, where she uses the motivational interviewing skills that she learned in clinical practice to help her students succeed. She holds a clinical doctorate in occupational therapy with an emphasis in education, and is currently pursuing a masters in instructional design and technology. In her free time, she enjoys reading, running, baking, and spending time with her family, friends, and rescue dog, Holly.

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Herman, K. C., Reinke, W. M., Frey, A. J., & Shepard, S. A. (2014). Motivational interviewing in schools: Strategies for engaging parents, teachers, and students. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Reich, C. M., Howeard Sharp, K. M., & Berman, J. S. (2015). A motivational interviewing intervention for the classroom. Teaching of Psychology, 42(4), 339-344.

Rollnick, S., Kaplan, S. G., & Rutschman, R. (2016). Motivational interviewing in schools: Conversations to improve behavior and learning. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Sheldon, L. A. (2010). Using motivational interviewing to help your students. The NEA Higher Education Journal, 153-158.

White, L. L., Gazewood, J. D., & Mounsey, A. L. (2007). Teaching students behavior change skills: Description and assessment of a new motivational interviewing curriculum. Medical Teacher, 29(4), 67-71.

Recommended Reading

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Miller and Rollnick’s book is the classic text on Motivational Interviewing, and covers all the basic skills and applications. This is highly recommended as a complete overview of the practice of MI no matter the setting or population.

North, R. A. (2017). Motivational interviewing for school counselors. (n.p.): Author.

Reagan North has self-published this simple and accessible book detailing the use of MI in a school setting. His focus is on working with high school students, but the application is the same no matter the population. Not only does North do an excellent job making the case for using MI with students, he offers very powerful examples of how it can be applied in this setting to help students foster change.

Rosengren, D. B. (2018). Building motivational interviewing skills: A practitioner workbook (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

This is a very practical resource for learning to use MI, as it is a workbook designed for self-study. It includes very clear guidance and examples to follow, so if you’re ready to jump right in to learning and using MI, this is an excellent place to start, as it will cover what you need to know and will challenge you to apply this as you complete the worksheets.