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The Duck Problem

Updated: Feb 20, 2019

Our ability to change human behavior is often guided (or hindered) by the mechanisms we use to understand it in the first place.

Imagine that you're standing by a pond and you see two ducks. One duck - we'll call her "Yola" - gracefully glides along the surface of the pond. Another duck - we'll call her "Noel" - simply will not enter the water. She walks along the edge, perhaps dipping a webbed toe in from time to time, but Noel, it appears, cannot float across the surface of the pond with the same ease as Yola.

But why? Is it because Yola has stronger legs for swimming? Is it because Noel's feathers lack the structure to both repel water and insulate her from the cold? Is it because Noel has had a traumatic experience and is afraid to swim in the pond?

Often times, we observe a behavior, mindset, or other characteristic and identify that it's a desired state. That's what we want. However, we often fail to acknowledge that the state we're observing is the result of a complex set of factors. Moreover, getting someone who is not exhibiting that characteristic to do so can be incredibly difficult if we don't understand that complex set of circumstances.

One of my favorite examples of this is "motivation." Whether we're talking about students, employees, or friends and family, I often hear someone say, "Oh I just wish they were motivated." This happened to me recently while working with a client in the workforce sector. They noted that one of the biggest challenges they had was in unmotivated employees, and that - as part of our retention improvement work - we should seek to support and develop "motivation."

As I often do when someone mentions a construct in this way, I went back to the drawing board. Usually, I go to the literature to identify major theoretical models that might help contextualize a potentially broad construct. But "motivation" is such an expansive term, I took an additional step back: I went to the dictionary, where Merriam-Webster defines motivation as:

  • the act or process of motivating;

  • the condition of being motivated;

  • a motivating force, stimulus, or influence : incentive, drive.

Usually, I laugh at these dictionary spirals (e.g., motivation is the state of being motivated), but in this case, it was actually quite helpful. Motivation is the state we observe as acting with motive. It's intrinsic. These people show up and do what we want on their own accord, without us ever having to intervene and convince them to do so.

As I said before, this can be a helpful or informative observation. If we were to create some sort of measure of motivation, it likely would predict (in my example here) employees who persisted.

However, "the duck problem," as I came to call it with this client, is in figuring out how to take our Noels and turn them into Yolas. Identifying the ducks that float (i.e., the employees who are motivated) is one issue, but developing that state is an entirely different challenge. There is a much greater level of understanding that must be developed because, as I mentioned before with the floating example, we don't yet know:

  1. What are the various components of being motivated? Similarly, what are the prerequisite conditions of being motivated?

  2. Which of those components/prerequisites are hindering motivation for a particular person? (It might not always be the feathers, feet, or fear that are driving our Noels not to swim.)

  3. How can we change that state? Is that even feasible? Do we have the appropriate interventions at our disposal?

In other words, it's easy to see the duck floating, but it's much harder to understand how to get a duck to float.

Some Notable Examples

In my higher education work, I've seen two notable examples of where the duck problem has created some challenges, and both are at least tangentially related to the example of motivation: engagement and grit.

Engagement is perhaps the best place to start, because it's tough to find a college campus that hasn't, at some point, focused on engagement. The National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Community College Survey for Student Engagement (CCSSE) are as pervasive as any assessment in higher education, with more than 1,600 four-year institutions using NSSE since 2000, and more than 1,000 community colleges participating in CCSSE since its inception in 2001.

Before I go any further, I certainly do not mean to indict the research done by George Kuh and his colleagues, or the NSSE and CCSSE organizations, who have put forth a great deal of their own research in an effort to advance student learning and success in higher education. I've sat on the National Advisory Board for CCSSE, along side colleagues from NSSE, and know that higher education is bettered by the existence of these organizations.

Yet, what I often hear from faculty and staff is akin to the motivation issue: "well our students just aren't engaged." Faculty, in particular, are quick to point to class attendance as the determinant of their students' success. Yet both attendance and engagement, to a larger extent, are complex behavioral outcomes. As one example, a study by Cole and Korkmaz (2013) found that need for cognition and well-being were significant predictors of academic engagement (e.g., class participation, class effort, collaborative classwork).

Studies like this are important because they go beyond the observation of "students aren't engaging in the classroom" to provide a more valuable insight into (a) why they aren't engaging and (b) what we might do to intervene.

I find similar issue with observations about grit. Work in this area has become the sexy topic over the last decade, with a TED talk garnering more than two million views at last count. Let's set aside the valid criticisms of grit (namely that it is highly correlated with existing constructs, such as conscientiousness; Credé, Tynan, & Harms, 2017). Even if we take the concept of grit as valid on its face, it still boils down to the observation that some students, even when facing notable challenges, work hard, persist, and succeed.

Ummm... is anyone surprised by this?

For me, the more valid question is "WHY?"Why are there students that do not, and what can we do to promote resilience in those students? Again, there is research that goes on in this area, notably by folks like David Yeager at the University of Texas, who focuses on psychological interventions in educational contexts. But the issue that arises in practice is the common and overly simplistic attribution that most consumers of this work take away: "oh... that student just doesn't have grit."

The Real Problem

Recently, a colleague of mine, David Potash, wrote a review of The Big Test, revisiting this important work in education two decades after its release. In this book, Nicholas Lemann discusses the prevalence of the SAT over the last century or so, and how - in an effort to create fairness - the test may have amplified gaps between privileged and underprivileged populations under the guise of a meritocracy. Put another way, the SAT was designed to identify academic skill, regardless of a student's background. However, according to Lemann, in many cases it became a tool to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy.

Reading David's review got me to worrying about engagement and grit being interpreted in this way by faculty and staff. Kuh's review of research into engagement, for example, begins with work into "time on task,"or the observation that student performance increased with behaviors such as studying. At first, this seemed like a blinding flash of the obvious to me, but then I wondered, "was research like this key to driving concepts of malleability, equity, and change?" In other words, if we're to work to help all students to be successful, mustn't we first acknowledge that all students can be successful? And that their success is a product of malleable behaviors and mindsets, not innate and immutable characteristics?

In other words, when we look at a Yola and a Noel, we need to understand why each duck is the way it is if we're going to help Noel be more like Yola. When we see a student that is engaged, or that demonstrates grit, we should know that this isn't something about them intrinsically, but a product of many underlying phenomena. Conversely, we should look at students who are disengaged or lack grit and ask, "what can we do to help them get there?" If we don't - if we simply observe them swimming or not - then we run the risk of accepting the fate that each achieves on their own.

How do we solve this problem?

After a career working in assessment, and dealing with a host of questions from people who loathe assessment, I can tell you that almost every time an assessment goes awry, it's because of misuse. It's because someone built a test with a particular purpose in mind, then someone else adapted that test for another purpose. These are the cases that tend to give assessment (or, more to the point, tests) a bad name.

As a result, modern test development theories and practices begin with use. Understanding how, when, why, and with whom an assessment will be used is the first step. Before items are written, or constructs identified, good assessment developers focus on use.

In educational research and practice, similar principles apply. For example, when using something like engagement to describe human behavior, we should understand the difference between developing theory, predicting future behavior, or even making decisions about access. Engagement has been an excellent theoretical model for better understanding student behavior in higher education. But how do we use this theory as a tool to improve student success?

The answer is complex and, frankly, I think it falls more on the consumers than the creators of research. Faculty, staff, and administrators should more thoroughly consider research such as this through the lens of the duck problem. Rather than acknowledging the obvious - that some ducks float and some don't - we should continually ask, "but how do we help more ducks to float?"


  • Cole, J. S., & Korkmaz, A. (2013). First-year students' psychological well-being and need for cognition: Are they important predictors of academic engagement?. Journal of College Student Development, 54(6), 557-569.

  • Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 492.

  • Kuh, G. D. (2009). The national survey of student engagement: Conceptual and empirical foundations. New Directions for Institutional Research, (141), 5-20.

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