Five Strategies to Increase Student Motivation

Harvey Mackay Quote

Why are some students reluctant to learn? Experienced teachers will tell you that there are many reasons why a student may be less than enthusiastic about learning, such as hunger, a lack of support at home, feeling emotionally distressed or worried, or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, this last reason can be one of the most detrimental as unmotivated students often do not experience the same academic success as their peers. This can lead them to lower expectations for themselves. When this happens it becomes increasingly likely that they will experience less success, and this may also lead to more time spent in remediation and less time spent on grade-level standards.

Without significant opportunities for strong instruction and practice on grade level, students are trapped in the reactive cycle of remediation which chips away at their motivation (self-efficacy and self-esteem), without much chance of building it back, even with encouragement from their parents or peers.

Lauren Resnick posited that “children develop cognitive strategies and effort-based beliefs about intelligence — the habits of mind associated with higher-order learning — when they are continuously pressed to raise questions and accept challenges, to find solutions that are not immediately apparent, to explain concepts, justify their reasoning, and seek information.” When we do not hold children accountable for this kind of intelligent behavior, they take it as a signal that we do not think they are smart, and they often come to accept this judgment. The paradox is that children become smart by being treated as if they already were intelligent. This is a hallmark of knowledge-based constructivist pedagogy and the key to increasing students’ effort and motivation. 

The research on factors influencing achievement provides this formula for supporting effective student effort:

(Effort-Based IQ: David Perkins, 1995, Lauren Resnick, 2001)

While student effort is not directly in the control of teachers and schools, we can certainly influence the experiences that students have that contribute to their motivation and help improve their self-efficacy and self-esteem. 

According to Darren Barkett, “Every child wants to succeed…  In my experience working with students from many different backgrounds, upbringing, family situations, and home lives, every student thrives when he or she feels a sense of accomplishment.” As educators, we are charged to help students feel this sense of confidence. We must encourage every student to put forth their best effort, to continue to work even when learning becomes difficult, and to believe that they can achieve at the highest of levels.

Here are five strategies to try:

  1. Accelerate Learning with Previewing. Previewing proactively provides students with important strategies and content prior to a grade-level lesson before they have a chance to become frustrated when learning new material. These Previewing Strategies are similar to small bits of “Mental Velcro” — providing students with scaffolds and supports that are more accessible, making it easier to tackle more challenging learning later. 
  2. Provide grade-level assignments. Ruth Mitchell from The Education Trust said, “Assignments are the artifacts of our expectations.” Effective assignments are how we prepare students for college and careers, but also how we communicate to them that we believe they are going to be successful. Research supports that students’ perceptions of their teachers’ beliefs align with stronger academic outcomes. For example, students that agree that their teachers “think it’s important that they learn a lot” do better on their assignments than students who do not think their teachers held this belief. Challenge students with appropriate assignments and show them that you know they are capable of challenging themselves. 
  3. Scaffold up, not down. Scaffolding is an instructional strategy that you can use to reduce the negative emotions and self-perceptions that your students may experience when grappling to learn skills and concepts. It requires teaching each lesson in learning chunks and providing a tool, or structure, with each chunk. When scaffolding reading, for example, you might preview the text and discuss key vocabulary, or chunk the text and then read and discuss as you go. By showing students how to solve problems and offering support as they need it, teachers can reduce the stress and frustration many students experience when tasked with learning something that goes beyond their current developmental level. And, by breaking up new concepts and skills into several achievable steps that can be learned more easily, students are more likely to succeed, which not only reduces the amount of remediation after a lesson but can also substantially improve students’ sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem thereby contributing to higher levels of student effort. 
  4. Make feedback about effort. Carol Dweck addresses the importance of providing feedback for processes and effort rather than innate intelligence. When students feel safe and understand that they can succeed with effort and persistence, they are more motivated to try, even during more difficult tasks. It is the belief about their abilities to accomplish meaningful tasks that is one of the most important factors in students overcoming many learning challenges, including peer concerns, desire for attention, fear of failure, and emotional distress. 
  5. Model a working mindset. It is okay for educators to admit when something is difficult for them, or how much effort they had to use to solve a problem or accomplish a task. By honestly sharing these struggles with students, as well as how we overcame them, we are modeling for students how to face similar challenges in their lives. Remember that your language is a very important part of this process. Use language that praises effort and is very positive and specific. Remember important phrases like, “I don’t understand yet, but I will.” Or instead of saying you will “try harder,” say “I will try again using a new strategy.” How we communicate about our thoughts and actions is just as important as thoughts and actions themselves. 

For additional strategies and practices to help your students find additional motivation, register for our upcoming Accelerate Learning Conference.

Lindsey Hampton

During her 20+years as an educator, Lindsey served various grade levels and subject areas. For 8 years she led inclusive classrooms and taught advanced placement courses. Following her classroom years, Lindsey spent 10 years as an instructional coach, professional development specialist, and district administrator of new teacher induction. She has presented at numerous conferences, including the Florida Association of School Administrator Conference, the Tennessee Principals Association Conference, and the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. Today, she works directly with teachers and school leaders in the implementation of the Learning-Focused Instructional Framework.

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