Today’s students are so often focused on the “what.” What classes will they take next year? What experiences will they seek out over the summer? What colleges will they apply to, and what major or career will they ultimately pursue? While important, simply asking “what” your next plan or goal will be can limit a student from uncovering the deeper meaning, motivation, strengths, and purpose from which such experiences and decisions may stem. Instead, we encourage students to ask a different question, or rather, a different series of the same fundamental question; “Why?”
The 5 Whys methodology was developed by the automaker Toyota’s founder, Sakichi Toyoda (Johnson, 2021). Originally used as a production methodology, the 5 Whys can also provide students with a unique framework to identify and express the underlying forces driving their decisions, behaviors, and future directions. The approach involves first asking a student “why” they want to do something or may be facing a particular problem. For example, “Why do you want to major in biomedical engineering?” or “Why did you fall short of your grade goal for this quarter?” This process of asking “why” is repeated a total of 5 times, building consecutively on the previous answer until the specific root cause or motivator of the particular issue becomes clear.
Used in an academic setting for students of all ages, this approach can help address one of the core elements of student success; motivation. Asking “why?” pinpoints the key areas a student should implement change in their daily habits to produce positive, long-term results. Identifying a student’s underlying motivators or distractions can offer more effective ways to assign value to certain essential activities that may elevate academic performance, whether organization and executive functioning skills, or study tactics and effective note-taking practices.
This method can also provide an important means of clarifying a student’s broader career interests. Identifying the underlying reasons a student may wish to pursue a particular profession or field through the 5 Whys approach can help to both narrow and bring to light the relevant strengths and passions students may already possess. This clarifying process illuminates what lies at the core of a student’s interest so that it may be communicated most effectively to others, whether an admissions officer, or a future employer.
Identifying one’s purpose and unique motivators through his framework can ultimately help students to uncover the underlying factors through which they can achieve their best and tell their story in the most meaningful way possible.