Motivating students

One of the most difficult aspects of becoming a teacher is learning how to motivate your students. It is also one of the most important. Pupils who are not motivated will not learn effectively. They won’t retain information, they won’t participate and some of them may even become disruptive. A student can be unmotivated for an array of reasons. For instance, they may simply feel that they have no interest in the subject, or they find the teachers methods boring. Some may simply be preoccupied by external distractions.

When it comes to motivating students there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As individuals we are all different, therefore we are all motivated by different things. Some students are self-motivated with an innate love of learning. Some students are motivated by extrinsic factors such as their parent’s expectations, or the knowledge that they will earn a place on a particular course if they work hard.

Other students are motivated by a desire to avoid failure and will often do what it takes to pass an exam or course, but they won’t choose to go beyond the minimum required as a consequence of their fear of failure. Nonetheless, even students lacking that natural drive can be inspired by a good teacher. This involves making learning fun and encouraging students to reach their full potential.

To understand what the best methods for motivating students are, it is important to know how motivation in the classroom works. James Middleton, Joan Littlefield, and Rich Lehrer have proposed the following model of academic motivation.

First, given the opportunity to engage in a learning activity a student determines if the activity is one that is known to be interesting. If so, the student engages in the activity. If not, then the student evaluates the activity on two factors – the stimulation (e.g. challenge, curiosity, fantasy) it provides and the personal control (e.g. free choice, not too difficult) it affords.

If the student perceives the activity as stimulating and controllable, then the student tentatively labels the activity as interesting and engages in it. If either condition becomes insufficient, then the student disengages from the activity, unless some extrinsic motivator influences the student to continue.

If the activity is repeatedly deemed stimulating and controllable then the student may deem the activity interesting. As such, the student will be more likely to engage with the activity in the future.

If over time activities that are deemed interesting provide little stimulation or control, then the student will remove the activity from his or her mental list of interesting activities.

Based on this model, one of the main challenges for teachers is providing learning activities that are both stimulating and offer students a degree of personal control.

Here are a few more ideas of how teachers can motivate their students:

Get to know your students on a personal level. This will allow you to understand what stimulates them and what they struggle with. Taking a personal interest in students learning will help inspire them to work hard. Moreover, it will create mutual respect between you and your class and minimise the likelihood of classroom disruption.

Give students as much control over their own education as possible. Let students choose paper and project topics that interest them. Assess them in a variety of ways, whether its tests, papers, projects or presentations. This gives students more control over how they show their understanding to you.

Be free with your praise and constructive in your criticism. Negative comments should relate to particular performances, not the individual themselves. Offer non-judgmental feedback on students’ work, stress opportunities to improve and avoid dividing students into sheep and goats.

Do something different. For instance, why not write personalised uplifting messages across your student’s desks in the aim to give them a boost of confidence before an exam. Gestures such as this can help to demonstrate that you genuinely care about the success of your students. You will then become an extrinsic motivator for them as they won’t want to feel as though they have let you down if they don’t work towards achieving their full potential.