Commentary—Motivating Our Students: The Strong Force of Curriculum Compacting

Spring 1995 Masthead

Heather Allenback
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

One of the most common complaints by today’s students appears in a statement no teacher receives very well—”Awww! This is BORING!” Frantically the teacher searches her files for some “quickie” activity that will miraculously invigorate her students with the passion for learning she had hoped to inspire. However, as Sally Reis, Deborah Burns, and Joseph Renzulli (1992) of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut have discovered, love for learning has been halted for many students because of repetition within the classroom. Many students have already mastered the material being taught in class, and quickly tune out. As the teacher soon discovers, neither a fantastic lesson nor harder work will stimulate these students. “The sad result is that our brightest students are often left repeating lessons they already know, which can lead to frustration, boredom and ultimately, underachievement” (Reis et al., 1992, p. 2). As a result, Reis et al. devised a strategy for enhancing student achievement called “curriculum compacting.” While it was designed for exceptionally bright students, the inherent fostering of positive perceptions of both competence and control allow this strategy to be used by teachers as a motivational tactic within the entire classroom.

What is Involved in Motivation?

It is important to understand the underlying principles of motivation when considering its place in curriculum compacting. An excellent reference to the components of motivation is Cheryl Spaulding’s (1992) Motivation in the Classroom. In her book, Spaulding discusses the two key components of a student’s perceptions of competence and control in the classroom and then relates six important principles underlying motivation. When referring to motivation, researchers (Deci, 1975; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Lepper & Green, 1978) find that two generic types usually occur-extrinsic and intrinsic. As Spaulding notes,

Individuals are extrinsically motivated when they engage in an endeavor because they expect, as a consequence, to secure a reward or avoid a punishment. In contrast, individuals are intrinsically motivated when they engage in an endeavor because of an inner desire to accomplish a task successfully, irrespective of the rewards or punishments associated with it. (Spaulding, 1992, p. 8)

It is the “inner desire” that we, as teachers, want to and can stimulate in our students through curriculum compacting. The crucial elements to enhancing intrinsic motivation emerge from students’ perceptions of their place in the classroom. The relationship between perceptions of competence and perceptions of control develops as a child matures throughout her school life. Fostering these self-perceptions should be a goal of teachers, in order to allow the students to feel confident in the task at hand and experience a positive learning situation. Spaulding (1992) further notes six instructional and management principles effective in guiding teachers to stimulate their students’ intrinsic motivation. Essentially, these six principles involve creating a classroom that

  1. creates a highly predictable environment,
  2. allows for an appropriate balance between challenging and easy tasks,
  3. provides a sufficient amount of instructional support,
  4. promotes control opportunities,
  5. avoids social comparisons of students, and
  6. presents novelty, uncertainty, and challenges to the student.

Curriculum compacting, as a strategy for motivating students, supports three of the major principles of intrinsic motivation, as defined above by Spaulding (1992).

Creating Novelty, Uncertainty, and Challenges

The first principle deals with the importance of providing students with interesting and challenging options within the classroom. Spaulding supports the notions of both making class exciting, and yet also promoting the value of academic interests, in order to develop and maintain intrinsic motivation, even if the task is not novel and unusual (1992). Reis et al. (1992) agree with providing novel academic experiences for students in order to challenge them and stimulate intrinsic motivation. Two of the rationales for compacting the curriculum focus on avoiding repetition and meeting the needs of the students. First, they note past research indicates

students already know most of their text’s content before learning it…. In a more recent study dealing with average and above-average readers, Taylor and Frye (1988) found that seventy-eight to eighty percent of fifth- and sixth-grade average readers could pass pretests on basal comprehension skills before they were covered by the basal reader. (Reis et al., 1992, p. 12)

Second, Reis et al. note that many of the needs of high ability students are not met in the classroom. As a result, many students react negatively to a classroom environment they perceive as boring. Ultimately, many bright students believe the best way to cope in the classroom is to do just enough to keep the teacher satisfied—nothing more, nothing less.

The practice of compacting the curriculum for students who show high mastery of a subject area provides students with challenging, yet exciting activities they can pursue with high perceptions of competence and control. The alternatives are numerous, all geared to create exciting options for the student and to promote a positive learning experience from which he/she will want to engage in more exploration. Reis et al. (1992) categorize the alternatives around five organizational topics: enrichment in the regular classroom; resource rooms; acceleration; off-campus experiences; and districtwide, schoolwide, or departmental programs. Such an adaptable list of activities allows both the student and teacher to investigate the options and focus on the student’s interests. Reis et al. have appropriately utilized the strategy of presenting novel and challenging independent studies in the classroom—they understand the importance of the student’s interests as key factors in motivation.

Providing Instructional Support

As described above, curriculum compacting is a strategy to restructure the regular curriculum for those students who have already mastered the required objectives. In doing so, teachers provide much support for these students by guiding them to the appropriate resources for a successful independent study. Reis et al. (1992) insist, in another rationale supporting curriculum compacting, that modifying both the pace and structure of instruction according to the individual student’s needs are key elements in maximizing achievement, particularly for bright students.

Essentially, teachers monitor the actions of the students, allowing them to manage their time and how they will investigate their topic of study. By individualizing instruction,

initial assessment determines where students should begin, and then the students work through the curriculum independently. In individualized programs, students receive more of their content instruction from the curriculum materials than from the teacher, who acts more as a materials manager, tester and progress monitor than as an instructor. (Reis, Burns, & Renzulli, 1992, p. 58)

When compacting the curriculum for a student, utilizing the management plan, “The Compactor,” ensures that the student will have a successful experience based on individual abilities, further stimulating internal perceptions of competence. By eliminating the amount of time previously spent on repetitious material, the student is able to focus on activities that are personally more meaningful. Reis et al. (1992) insist that the teacher quietly monitors the student’s progress, making sure to provide the necessary support, but allowing ultimate decisions to be made by the student. Such freedom to successfully accomplish a task designed around one’s own interests inevitably promotes intrinsic motivation through self-perceptions of competence and control.

Promoting Control Opportunities

A third, and final, theoretical principle of intrinsic motivation emerges within the strategy of curriculum compacting. While “The Compactor” structures instructional support in a way that promotes perceptions of competence within the student, the enrichment activities pursued during the time saved by compacting also encourage self-perceptions of control. Reis et al. (1992) strongly urge that student interest be considered to ensure a successful compacting experience. “Building educational experiences around students’ interests is probably one of the most recognizable ways in which schoolwide enrichment programs differ from the regular curriculum” (Reis et al., 1992, p. 103). This assertion stems from past research that indicates students object to limited choices within the confines of the curriculum and, as a result, negatively view the classroom as a place of very few opportunities. However,

this is not to say that every independent study situation should be without limits. The teacher’s own strengths and interests may lead him or her to place certain restrictions on general areas of study (for example, futuristics, colonial history, geology), but within these broad areas a great deal of freedom should be allowed in the selection of specific topics or problems. (Reis et al., 1992, p. 103)

While student interests should be identified by the teacher, Reis et al. warn the teacher not to push a student into independent study at the first sign of interest. Rather, they should encourage exploratory work around an area of interest through “Interest Development Centers.” A student’s interest can be piqued by including resources that disclose the process or methodology skills that an adult would use in a career field; narrative information; suggestions for specific activities, experiments or research; community resources; and display items.

Obviously, “Interest Development Centers” allow students to take control of learning the subject presented by the teacher. Along with the choice in enrichment activities, such centers provide an abundance of options for the student, a crucial element in curriculum compacting. To a student, the ability to make a choice equals an element of control within the classroom. Ultimately, this perceived control, along with perceptions of competence, will most likely lead to a love for independent learning.


Ultimately, the perceived elements of competence and control by students whose curriculum has been compacted stimulate intrinsic motivation. Reis et al. (1992) have developed a plan that allows a student to explore options, resulting in successful learning experiences and an inner desire to do more. Curriculum compacting revolves around the student and his/her interests—the teacher is merely a guide, a person there to provide support should the student need it. Sally Reis, Deborah Burns, and Joseph Renzulli have appropriately recognized the importance of individuality in structuring today’s curriculum.

All students need learning experiences appropriate to their individual abilities, interests, and learning styles. Individual uniqueness should be respected and provided for, and every effort should be made to adapt learning experiences to their development. (Reis et al., 1992, p. 62)

As an attempt to counter the problem of waning motivation, curriculum compacting emerges as a bold, progressive step to modify an otherwise outdated classroom structure. This classroom strategy promises to excite, enrich, and motivate our students—our future.

Deci, E. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Lepper, M., & Greene, D. (1978). The hidden costs of reward. Hinllsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Reis, S. M., Burns, D. E., & Renzulli, J. S. (1992). Curriculum compacting: The complete guide to modifying the regular curriculum for high ability students. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Spaulding, C. L. (1992). Motivation in the classroom. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, Inc.


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