Motivating Students: A Guide for Teachers

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1.Introduction How To Motivate Students

Even in normal years, motivating your students to achieve their goals and potential can be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching.

2020 has been a whole different ball game.

With pupils in and out of school, high levels of uncertainty around exams and grading, and the general stress of the world right now, it’s understandable that both pupil and teacher motivation is at an all-time low.

It’s probably more important than ever to foster and support motivation in our classrooms. It won’t be easy, but teaching never is!

Read on for some tips and tricks.

Challenges Facing Teachers in the Classroom

2.The Challenges That Teachers Face In The Classroom

Despite popular belief, teaching is not a holiday-laden, lark. It is a challenging, under-paid, under-appreciated job that brings us unbelievable levels of satisfaction and joy despite the stress.

The problems facing teachers today are many and multi-faceted. But this isn’t a pity post. I bring up these challenges because teachers can’t perform at their best when they are overworked to the point of exhaustion.

If you’re reading this as a teacher, I hope that you’re able to recognize that you’re not the only one facing these problems.

If you’re not a teacher, perhaps this section will give you an idea of the challenges that we face on top of teaching, mentoring, and encouraging our pupils.

    • Overcrowded classrooms – We want to treat our pupils as the individuals they are. We want to give them all the time and attention they need. However, when you’re one person with 30+ pupils to cater to, individual needs are hard to meet. Overcrowding is a result of underfunded school systems. Reduced budgets lead to reduced teacher numbers which lead to overcrowding and a reduction in attainment.
  • Wearing too many hats at once –  Using the word ‘teacher’ to describe our job is a bit misleading. Teachers take on many roles in the classroom and around the school.

We are counselors, psychologists, wellbeing specialists, social workers, mentors, life coaches, parents, and when we have time, educators.

I’m not bragging about our skills. As you can imagine, nobody can do all these jobs well. Every day teachers have to ask themselves which role needs their expertise and focus more. The other roles take a back seat.

Again, this is partly to do with a lack of funding. If schools could afford counselors, psychologists, and support staff teachers wouldn’t have to fulfill these roles on top of their educator role.

  • Not enough preparation time – One of the most difficult things about teaching is the constant, never-ending pile of planning, grading, and paperwork. It takes up so much time. Time that we don’t have during school hours. Inevitably this means that work ends up coming home with us. During the busiest times of the year, around midterms and finals, for example, this can mean we are working 11 hours and more. During the worst times of my teaching career, I was getting to work at 7 am, coming home at 7 pm, and planning and grading at home till midnight or longer. It was physically and emotionally exhausting but it was the only way to keep on top of everything.

Nobody can perform at their best under those conditions.

  • Curricula that aren’t fit for purpose –  Putting aside the debate around what should and shouldn’t be included in school curricula, there are a lot of problems with curricula in general.

First and foremost, a blanket curriculum doesn’t allow pupils to learn as individuals and it limits the teacher’s ability to treat them as individuals.

Secondly, many curricula focus on fact acquisition instead of skill development. While facts may help pupils attain high grades in exams, they don’t tend to prepare pupils for the challenges of life.

Learning how to learn is much more important than learning things but our curricula aren’t designed for this.

To summarise the problems facing teachers are a lack of funding and time. If we could find time and money to reduce some of the pressures in classrooms, teachers, pupils and the communities they serve would benefit greatly.

Why is Motivation Important to Success?

Motivation is the force that drives our pupils forward toward success. It’s like gas in a car.

When a pupil is motivated they can keep moving forward. On a full tank, they have the drive and impetus to reach their final destination.

However, motivation isn’t limitless. We need to keep topping up the tank to get them where they want to go.

If the tank does run dry then they’ll stop moving. Sure, we can get out and push, but nobody goes very far that way.

For a long time motivation in schools was linked to rewards. Attendance awards, scholarship awards, prestige awards have been used as carrots to entice pupils.

While there is an argument for these kinds of rewards they can’t be the sole source of motivation. External rewards are extrinsic motivators and while they can cajole pupils to finish that last bit of work or try particularly hard on a project, they won’t keep them going in the long run.

The motivation we want to help our pupils acquire is intrinsic motivation. This is deep motivation, the kind of fire that keeps us reaching for our goals despite setbacks.

If we go back to our car analogy, intrinsic motivation is a premium fuel while extrinsic motivation is more like a wind-up motor.

7 Tips for Motivating Students

1. Positive Relationships

1.Establish Positive Teacher-Student RelationshipsIn all my years of teaching, nothing has been more important to pupil motivation than a strong, working relationship.

Pupils are motivated to try things when they feel safe, supported, and respected. In that sense, they’re no different from any other person.

It’s important to foster relationships that are built around respect, communication, and genuine interest in your pupils.

Pupils can tell when you are just feigning interest or bestowing superficial praise. If you don’t want your pupils to feign interest in your lessons, don’t teach them that skill by feigning interest in them.

One thing to remember is that we are trying to foster intrinsic motivation. Pupils who are motivated to do well in the hope of pleasing a teacher are not intrinsically motivated. That is an example of extrinsic motivation and it’s not a healthy trait.

We want pupils to want to do well for their own good. Otherwise, when they leave school they may lose all their motivation until they can find someone else to hang on to.

So the focus of our relationships should be around building their self-belief and letting them know that it’s ok to try and fail as long as they get back up again. We want to be peripheral support not the center of their motivation.

Creating these relationships does take time. It’s not going to happen on the first day, it might not even happen by the end of the first term. Just keep trying. Even with the pupils who test your patience.

Often these students need a positive relationship in their lives more than other pupils. Try to put past misbehaviour behind you. Treat every time they walk into your classroom as a fresh start.

Giving them the chance to start over after a bad lesson or bad behavior clears the air. If they walk into your classroom thinking that you are holding a grudge against them or that you’re still angry at them, they will be less inclined to work with you.

I’m not saying you should ignore bad behavior but deal with it and move on.

2. Make Lessons Meaningful

2.Make Lessons MeaningfulNo matter what subject you teach you will always be faced with that blood boiling question; ‘But Miss/Sir when am I EVER going to need this?’

Your students aren’t stupid. They know when they’re being asked to do something for the sake of just doing something and they won’t be eager to do it.

When you’re planning and delivering your lessons, make sure the aims and objectives are clear to yourself and the pupils.

Do something meaningful with the lesson aims, turn them into an anagram so the pupils have to genuinely think about them, have a discussion about the aims and how they fit into the scheme of learning, get the pupils to make predictions about the aims.

Essentially, you want the pupils to engage with and think about the aims rather than just copying them down.

The content of the lesson needs to be engaging and it needs to help pupils move towards the lesson aims. Filler activities that just pad out a lesson are of no use to anyone.

If pupils do finish their work early, don’t let them scroll through their phones or play around. Equally, don’t just throw more work at them. Give them a meaningful task that deepens their learning.

For example, make them a teacher’s aide and let them help other pupils in the class, ask them to create a poster, comic, or similar creative activity that summarizes what they have learned that lesson, ask them to self-grade and evaluate their work against success criteria.

A great way to check if a task or activity is meaningful to their learning is to use Bloom’s taxonomy.

blooms taxonomy

Caption: Bloom’s Taxonomy

Tasks that fall lower down the pyramid have their place but it’s those tasks towards the top that are genuinely meaningful learning experiences.

Another way to make your lessons meaningful to your pupils is to include their hobbies and interests. I taught high school English which meant we did a lot of reading. Where possible, I made a point of choosing articles, essays, and other writings that discussed topics of interest to my students.

That small gesture had a big impact. They were learning how to analyze articles or how to compare two different writings so we were still fulfilling the curriculum requirements. But the resources we used were relevant and meaningful to them.

History is a pretty easy subject to adapt in this way, I’ll admit. But there’s no reason why you can’t make similar changes to your own subject area.

3. Build Resilience

3.Establish A Sense of CompetenceResilience is the ability to get back up and try again after a setback.

It is a skill that needs developing from an early age.

Without resilience, a pupil’s motivation will be fleeting and superficial.

Students who lack resilience may seem excited and engaged initially, but as soon as they come across a difficulty or problem they will give up.

They are the pupils who become frustrated and demoralized easily. Rather unhelpfully, public attitudes suggest that there are only two ways to deal with pupils who lack resilience.

On the one hand, some argue you need to tell the kids to toughen up and just get on with it. On the other hand, some hyper-protective people prefer to remove any obstacles that could cause upset.

Neither attitude is helpful if you are trying to foster intrinsic motivation in your pupils. We need to encourage pupils to see ‘failures’ as part of the journey to success.

Rather than seeing a setback as something that derails their progress towards success, they need to see it as an opportunity to learn something that can help them further their journey.

Teaching growth mindsets is a great way to build resilience in pupils. The idea is to encourage pupils to rewire their narrative. Instead of thinking ‘I can’t do this’ they think ‘I can’t do this yet.’ 

It’s remarkable how much difference a single small word makes. This is how we should be teaching our pupils to think. Small changes create a big difference.

When our pupils start seeing difficulties or problems as junctions instead of roadblocks they have an easier time maintaining their motivation.

Again, it’s important to remember that you can’t prescribe a growth mindset. It has to be accepted and created from within. We can teach them the fundamentals but they need to apply it for themselves.

We can support them as they try it out and reassure them when they are nervous but you can’t force someone to think differently.

One way to support the development of a growth mindset is to build your pupil’s confidence. Encourage them with genuine praise, allow them to express their concerns without scorn or judgment, give them autonomy to make decisions.

Some simple ways to boost your class’s confidence include having an encouragement jar in the classroom. This not only gives your pupils a confidence boost when they need it but also encourages them to have autonomy over their emotional needs.

Being able to recognize and meet their emotional needs is a key feature of resilience. It’s that ‘know thyself’ maxim that features so heavily in literature.

If a person understands what and why they are feeling, then they can respond to that emotional need. It doesn’t derail them or leave them feeling utterly drained.

4. Create Autonomy and a Supportive Environment

4.Provide An Environment For Autonomy SupportA teacher that encourages autonomy support is at the other end of the spectrum to a teacher who practices a controlling teaching style.

Autonomy support is about creating a learning environment where students are involved in the whole learning process from planning to task completion, to grading.

If we look at a lesson as 3 stages, we can identify where and how we can create an autonomy support environment.

    • Pre-lesson reflection – consider the lesson from the pupil’s perspective. Imagine how they will see the activities, how they will engage with the lesson and tasks.Ultimately you want to work out if there is a way to make your lesson more engaging, more interesting, or more useful to the pupils.
  • Beginning the lesson – The goal of this section is to involve the pupils in the lesson. Tell them the plan, ask them what they think about the plan, is there anything they would change?One of the most important things you need to do at this point is to visualize the pupil’s inner motivations. Their inner motivations will determine how engaged and motivated they are in this lesson.Check out this article for a detailed description of how to do the visualization.

During the lesson – The goal here is to be able to address student’s concerns and issues with open dialogue.

The worst thing you can say when a pupil questions the purpose or point of a lesson or task is ‘because I said so.’ This freezes them out of the decision-making process and kills motivation.

That single phrase can ruin all the hard work you have put into creating an autonomy support environment. It essentially tells the pupils that their input isn’t needed or valid.

You are the adult and you need to rise above the emotional response you get from any criticism or challenges. Teach your pupils to give feedback in a constructive way and model a mature and open response to feedback.

You don’t have to give them full control of the classroom, but let them know that you value and understand their concerns and opinions. They will be more likely to engage with you and the lesson

5. Set High but Attainable Goals.

5.Set High But Attainable GoalsStudents need something to aim for and it needs to be relevant to them.

Sure, we tell them that they need to learn to do well in exams but that is not a motivating goal.

Except for our final year students, exams and graduation seem much too far away to be a good motivator.

Besides, it’s not a specific goal.

There’s so much that needs to be done before they can ‘achieve’ success in exams, it’s a completely overwhelming goal.

To motivate students we need to help them create SMART goals. These goals are relevant, specific, and measurable. You can read more about SMART goals here but let’s also look at an example.

‘I want to be better at spelling’ is one of the most frequent targets I come across as an English teacher. The issue with this goal is that it is very vague. We haven’t got any parameters that tell us when the goal has been achieved, we don’t know how to go about completing the goal and we have no time frame.

Without a time frame, the goal becomes less pressing and therefore pupils aren’t very motivated. They’ll get round to it eventually.

With no measurable parameters, the goal can’t be assessed. They don’t know when they’ve achieved it so motivation will drop off the longer the goal is ‘active.’

Finally, with no plan of action or success criteria, pupils will struggle to find the motivation to try. You’ll be faced with a flurry of never-ending ‘how’ questions.

So what would that goal look like as a SMART target?

‘I want to achieve at least 7/10 on my spelling tests for 3 weeks in a row by the end of this term.’

This goal is measurable, we have the score and the streak to count, it is time-limited which gives a sense of urgency. In terms of success criteria or steps to success, the pupil knows that the way to improve their score is to practice for the test.

6. Promote Collaboration

6.Embrace Collaborative LearningOne of the things that kills motivation is fatigue.

The longer pupils are working towards a goal the more motivation they are using.

If the journey is difficult, the fuel is depleted more quickly.

Now, we could simplify things but that doesn’t always help pupils in the long run.

Encouraging resilience and giving pupils autonomy can help them make decisions about their learning journey and can help preserve and build motivation that has been lost.

Another tool in your arsenal is collaboration. Studies have shown that pupils who are working together, sharing information, and supporting each other will persist longer than individuals working on the same task alone.

This is partly because of that old saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and partly to do with engagement.

Many adults report that they dislike group work but children are different. They mostly enjoy the process of working with others. It allows them to socialize while they work, learn from their peers, and it gives them a sense of belonging. All of these things work wonders for motivation.

7. Give Pupils Ownership

We covered pupil ownership of their learning when we talked about autonomy supportive learning. Here, we mean ownership over the physical learning space, the classroom.

I don’t know about you, but I find it really difficult to work well in an unfamiliar place. When I was in college, I worked in the same place in the library during exam season. At home, I work best at my desk surrounded by my things.

Pupils are no different. Involve them in the classroom design. This is easier for elementary students who don’t move classes, I’ll admit. In high school where classrooms are shared, you have to get a bit more creative.

Ultimately, the goal is to make the classroom feel comfortable and safe for your students. Little things like asking them about lighting or heating conditions go a long way.

Equally, if you can decorate your classroom ask them what things they would like to see there. Some pupils love having their work displayed, others might find resources more useful.

If you can’t decorate, encourage your pupils to come up with a classroom routine. Let them create and run their own starter or plenary activities, have a vote on a book monitor or board cleaner.

If they are involved they are engaged and engagement is key to motivation.

Tips for Creating Engagement

5.7 Tips For Establishing Engagement In The Classroom

Engagement is to motivation as a spark is to gasoline. Engagement is what sets the fire of motivation aflame in your students. To reuse our car simile, engagement is the spark plug that starts the engine.

It’s important to remember that engagement alone won’t get your students where they need to go. You can have the most exciting series of lessons but if there’s no fuel in the tank the engine won’t turn over.

Engagement should work as a gateway to motivation. So, let’s take a look at how we can create the much-needed spark.

1. Use Pop Culture

7.Integrate Pop Culture Into LessonsWe spoke about this briefly when we discussed making lessons meaningful but let’s look at it in a bit more detail.

When you’re at a party and trying to make friends, you strike up a conversation about the other person’s hobbies and interests.

The idea is that they’ll want to be a part of that conversation.

The same applies to the classroom.

If you want your pupils to engage with a conversation and task, make it relevant to them.

Try not to be cringy about it. If your students are into gaming or dance or whatever it is, and you have no idea about that particular hobby, ask them. Learn more about it so that when you incorporate it into your lessons it is meaningful.

Don’t assume anything. Skateboarding and grunge might have been popular when you were a kid but pop culture turns on a dime.

If you engage your students in a discussion about their hobbies, they will appreciate it so much more when you include their hobbies in their learning. It will seem like a genuine gesture rather than a hollow attempt to seem hip.

You can also use current events to engage your students. A lot is happening in the world that everyone should know about. It might be that they aren’t yet engaged in politics or social issues but it doesn’t need to stay that way.

Pupils who are engaged and informed about current events go on to be engaged and informed adults. I think everyone can agree that informed and engaged adults are in short supply at times.

2. Speak Their Language

8.Utilize Social MediaA teacher who digs their heels in and refuses to engage with digital, social, and modern media is a teacher who is removed from their pupils.

Students today are the most technologically advanced they have ever been.

They consume information and media through social networks, the internet, texts, and messaging.

You can lament the degradation of long-form communication all you want but that doesn’t change the fact that we communicate differently nowadays.

If you use the forms of communication they are used to, then they will be more engaged. I’m not saying that you need to use text speak but include videos, Tiktoks, and memes where appropriate.

They can be an excellent learning tool. For example, if you’re teaching a home economics class, look at all those food videos that are on Instagram and Facebook. They’re usually filmed with the camera pointing down on the hands and ingredients.

Try to make your own or include one in your lesson. It’s something they are familiar with and something they engage with frequently.

Speaking of their language, how about getting them to speak yours? I employ corny riddles into my repertoire by adding them as a do now or exit on Fridays. It’s so fun for me and elicits — yes some groans, but definitely some smiles as well. Check out my 50 corny jokes here.

3. Let Pupils Choose Their Learning

9.Give Students An Opportunity To Choose What They Want To LearnThis harkens back to what we were saying about ownership and autonomy. If they have skin in the game they are more engaged and interested.

Obviously, you have a curriculum to teach to but that doesn’t mean you can’t give pupils some choice.

There are so many ways to infuse student choice into your lessons and curriculum. Check out my post on the topic here.

Consult them on projects and activities, find out what areas they feel they need to focus on, listen to the feedback they give after tasks.

I once had a class who hated whole class reading. They would moan, whine, and avoid it like the plague. When I managed to corral them into reading they were completely disengaged because they were too busy brooding about how much they hated reading to the class.

I spoke with them and explained that reading aloud was a skill they needed to practice and asked them how we could make it a more enjoyable activity. Someone suggested reading aloud in small groups. As the majority of the class was amenable we gave it a go.

When they split up into groups the vast majority were more engaged in the process. They shared the reading fairly and were able to discuss what they’d read because they had been listing instead of fretting.

Simple choices like the one above can have a massive impact on engagement and thus motivation. Freedom of choice is not the same as anarchy so don’t be afraid of it.

4. Make Them Accountable

10.Publicize Goals To Help Students Stay AccountableThis fits in with the SMART targets we talked about. When your pupils set themselves a goal or target they need to be held accountable for that target.

If the target means nothing and there are no rewards or repercussions for hitting or missing then they won’t be motivated to hit that target.

I’m not saying that you need to punish pupils who have genuinely tried and failed to reach a goal.

Nor am I saying that the onus should be placed solely on their shoulders. You are their teacher after all and you are there to support them.

No, what I mean is that they need to have some level of responsibility for their goals, their work, and their behavior.

One way to engage your students with their goals is to make them public. Have a target board where each pupil can publicly tick off the goal they have achieved.

Most students will want to see a tick next to their name, even the otherwise uninterested ones. Even better, they’ll want to go up and tick it themselves. It’s curious how much being allowed to write on the board or wall engages pupils!

Of course, not every target needs to be public. Some are for pupils to work on privately. Also, if you have pupils who are struggling to reach their goals, you can speak with them and help them develop a plan that will get them over the finish line.

5. Reflection is Key

11.Allow Opportunities To Reflect On These GoalsIf tasks and activities are frequently completed then forgotten about, pupils will disengage from them.

They begin to see them as time filler activities that don’t matter.

You need to build in reflection time for every lesson.

You don’t have to spend hours giving them time to think about every activity they do.

It’s much more important to have smaller, meaningful periods of reflection than it is to have big chunks of pointless reflection.

Try out plenary activities that ask pupils to rank their progress or understanding of a lesson. You can do this anonymously with traffic light boxes. Pupils who need a bit more help pop their books or name in the red box at the end of the lesson etc.

Self-assessment is also a key engagement activity. Give pupils time to compare their work to the success criteria or model answer. Let them identify what they did really well and what their next steps should be.

One thing you’ll need to monitor is the balance between negative and positive reflection. As a species, humans tend to be very critical. You need to show them how to celebrate themselves and their achievements.

6. Give Effective Feedback

12.Give Timely Effective and Objective FeedbackOne way to show pupils what good feedback and reflection looks like is to model it yourself.

When you give feedback whether it’s verbal or written you should try to use the hamburger technique.

In corporate worlds, it’s known as the shit sandwich. Essentially, you need to tell them what they’ve done well, give them advice or a target, and finish off by giving them more praise.

It’s not so much about coddling your pupils and softening the blow as it is about preserving motivation. You want your pupils to receive the praise and constructive criticism well so you need to present it well.

The other thing to remember about effective feedback is that it needs to be timely.

Yes, I know we’re all busy with planning, grading, and jumping through hoops. But you do need to prioritize feedback.

If you give feedback weeks or months after the assignment then it means nothing to the pupils. It doesn’t allow them to correct or improve and they will struggle to engage with the feedback.

Your school will have guidelines about when and how feedback is delivered so you may be somewhat constrained. The main thing to remember is that the sooner the better when it comes to feedback.

If you know that you are snowed under with grading and your written feedback is going to be delayed, make sure to give lots of verbal feedback in the lesson or immediately after the task.

7. Make Praise Meaningful

We’ve touched on this already but it deserves a closer look. Praise should be treated like salt.

Sprinkled generously but not overdone. Too much praise dilutes the power of praise.

For example, I once taught a pupil who came from a family that would ‘clap a fart.’

I mean, they would shower this pupil with praise for something as mundane as breaking wind.

I’m sure they had the best intentions but what happened was that praise meant very little to him. He didn’t need to try to be rewarded with praise and he didn’t.

Don’t let your classroom become a place where praise is valueless. Celebrate your students but do it meaningfully.

When you give praise make sure it is for something personal and important to your student. If you’ve got a pupil who can’t break the habit of shouting out, praise them when they put their hand up and wait.

It might seem like nothing to other pupils who have already mastered that skill, but to your talkative pupil, it shows them that you appreciate their efforts.

Praise and celebration shouldn’t be relegated to academic or behavioral successes. Celebrate their personal development. Make a note of their birthdays and make them feel special when it rolls around, tell them how pleased you are that they made the team, performed in a play, or did a recital.

Remember that our role as a teacher isn’t to fill them with facts. It’s to help them develop as individuals. Praise and recognition is a wonderful resource at your disposal.

Final Thoughts

Motivation comes from within but it can be augmented, supplemented, and boosted by our environment and the people around us.

Sometimes, as teachers, we wish that we could just gift our pupils the motivation they need to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

One of the best ways to motivate your pupils is to simply talk to them. Find out what makes them tick and help them make choices that will meet their needs.

If we simply gave them everything they needed then they would falter when they leave school.

What we can and should do is create a learning environment that promotes and encourages our pupil’s motivation.

If we go back to the car metaphor one more time, our classrooms should be like gas stations. They should be places where pupils can choose their fuel and top up their store of motivation.

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