Understanding Why Students Quit

We all spend a lot of time praising traits like hard work, determination, perseverance, and grit—and noting their importance in overcoming any challenge or obstacle. Whether in the classroom, office, or on the athletic field, we know these are the elements of achievement and success.

Runners proudly display “26.2” bumper stickers, showing off to the world that they completed a marathon. We celebrate champions and innovators like Michael Jordan and Thomas Edison—who overcame adversity and gained great success. What if Michael Jordan had given up after he was cut from his high school basketball team? What if Thomas Edison had given up after his hundredth attempt at a longer-lasting light bulb? Certainly, our world would be a colder, emptier place if our heroes gave up before they had a chance to inspire generations.

Stories like these are so celebrated that quitting has become a dirty word. People see quitting as the end of the story, or a moment we should regret and forget. But a closer look at quitting shows that it is an important component in how we handle difficult tasks. The reality is that everyone quits—even Michael Jordan and Thomas Edison.

If they hadn’t quit on the things that didn’t work for them, they never would have focused on what they did well. The point is to recognize that everyone quits, and it’s not always a problem. Even teachers quit at times. They may leave a pile of papers ungraded, put off calling the parents of a challenging student, or decide a video may be a good shortcut for a lesson. We don’t want our effectiveness as teachers to be defined by the moments in which we quit, so we shouldn’t base our judgments of student potential on their least resilient moments.

Quit Point: Understanding Apathy, Engagement, and Motivation in the Classroom, authors Adam Chamberlin and Svetoslav Matejic present a new way of approaching quitting. They explain their theory on how, why, and when people quit and how to stop quitting before it happens. They will show you that knowing a person's quit point will transform how teachers reach the potential of each and every student.

Students Try Hard Inside and Outside The Classroom

Sometimes, instead of academic effort, students will focus their energy on “fairness” or helping a friend with a problem. Students will push through exhaustion to play games for an extra hour when their parents are asleep. Others may show their determination by spending an extra hour making sure their hair and clothes are perfect, instead of doing their homework.

Many students must show resilience just to make it to school every morning. They overcome hunger, abusive situations, depression, personal struggles, illness, acting as parental figures for younger siblings, and more, before setting foot in a classroom. 

Each of these variations requires recognition, because that is how we as educators come to understand why students quit differently than teachers when it comes to school. These variables play a vital role in showing the kinds of challenges people are willing to persevere through … and the challenges that will lead to quitting.

What Is The Quit Point?

Quit Point is the moment when an individual’s productive energy toward a specific goal drops, causing withdrawal or minimized effort. As people work toward accomplishing a goal (washing the dishes, learning a geometric theorem, running a marathon, etc.), they must maintain a consistent level of effort.

Many people assume that level of effort is the equivalent of using 100 percent of their energy. And when the options are to work harder and give even more effort—or give up entirely—those who have already maximized their effort and have not yet overcome their challenges, simply quit.

Students who struggle aren’t necessarily being lazy when they fail at working just a little bit harder. Hard work is relative and variable, not a constant value. A student who comes up against challenges and obstacles might not be able to overcome them, no matter how hard he or she works. That doesn't mean they're lazy; just that the challenge is beyond their means. 

Recognizing The Quit Point

When people hit their Quit Point, they begin to demonstrate forms of procrastination, distraction, or avoidance. They understand the importance of completing the task but are unable to focus their effort toward achieving their goal on time.

Distraction is possibly the most common symptom of Quit Point because students have so many non-academic priorities that compete for their time and attention. Distraction is a logical response to situations that begin to require more energy to maintain consistent productivity. Once the energy it takes to stay focused is more than a student can sustain, the only option is to lose focus.

Another symptom of a student hitting the Quit Point is avoidance. When students refuse to try assignments, fail to participate, or fall asleep in class, even a bystander can see that they’ve given up on class goals. To the frustrated classroom teacher, staying awake in class seems like a simple and easily accomplished request. However, just like the sink full of dishes can overwhelm the most resilient adult after a day of work, this straightforward task can prove to be too much for a student who has reached a limit. 

“Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.”

—Seth Godin

Recognizing that these behaviors are symptoms allows educators to address the factors that cause Quit Point in the first place. To solve the problem, you must treat the underlying cause. Failure to do so will lead to the students quitting—and becoming so used to quitting that only the most intensive interventions have any hope of helping them.

Final Takeaway 

It is essential to recognize that everyone quits, including at school. As educators, it is common to expect students not to give up, because our experiences and expectations related to education helped us to persevere throughout formal schooling. However, many of our students quit because, based on their own experiences, it is a better choice than struggling throughout each day or even each class. These choices are not because they don’t want to be successful—and yet that is how teachers often perceive students’ lack of effort. 


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