5 Things I Learned About Student Motivation While Teaching K-12


In all my years of teaching, I have learned that motivation is the most complex aspect of teaching. However, my experience has taught me that it is not an impossible feat to motivate all of the students in our classrooms.

The Motivation Conundrum

As teachers, we all face the motivation conundrum in our classrooms. There is the student who sits in the back of the class every day trying to take a nap behind his history book and refusing to engage in the lesson. In math, there is the student who never turns in math homework. For an English teacher, it is the student who can sit staring at a blank screen surreptitiously reading emails while he is supposed to be working on a paper about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. As teachers, we have all stared down these scenarios trying to figure out how to motivate the unmotivated student. We go to in-service sessions and read books looking for a magic solution. However, in seventeen years of education, there is one key truth to motivation that I've come to accept: there is no single solution that works.

#1: There is No Such Thing as an Unmotivated Student

There is this myth I heard during my years of teaching that some students are just not motivated. Don't believe the myth. There truly is no unmotivated student; they may just not be motivated by the usual reasons. Educator Richard Lavoie believes that unmotivated students don't exist. It's not that they are genuinely unmotivated; they are just motivated by things that wouldn't normally pop up on the teacher radar. It may be helpful to think of them as 'other-motivated' students.

They may be motivated to avoid the anxiety they feel when doing math, or the embarrassment they feel when reading in front of the class because they don't want to wear their glasses or can't read. With the 'other-motivated' student, you will need to identify what's causing them to appear unmotivated in your classroom and pull the resources you need from your school and community to help address those deficits. If you do, you will find their motivation increases.


#2: Don't Rely Solely On Extrinsic Motivation

Somewhere in your education experience, you probably had a teacher with a prize box. Prize boxes are a typical form of extrinsic motivation. That is, you are motivating students with some kind of reward to get them to do what you want. It is also known as operant conditioning, where you reward a desired behavior. However, research shows that relying solely on extrinsic motivation can be problematic and cause students to be more interested in the reward than the actual learning itself.

If you want to motivate students in the long run, you have to build their intrinsic motivation in your classroom. Giving students choice builds their intrinsic motivation to learn. For example, if you are teaching about cells, you can give students choices in how they demonstrate their mastery, such as writing a song, taking a test (if they wish), building a model, etc. Choice gives students a feeling of control, and that control will drive their motivation.

#3: Punishment Doesn't Motivate Students

In our classrooms, there are students who will have an excuse every day for why they don't have their book or didn't do their homework. I used to sit in team meetings with teachers who said things like, ''I gave him detention at recess two weeks in a row and he still doesn't do his homework!'' Embrace the notion that punishment doesn't motivate students to do anything. They can sleep through detention just as easily as they did your fifth period class.


If you want to break them out of their unmotivated habits, require them to engage in some self-reflection. Sometimes the best way to approach it is by making self-reflection part of your classroom routine. It's a good tool to help you understand their motivation, and to get your students to engage in goal setting, which also drives motivation. Deliberately set aside reflection as part of your classroom routine. For example, after a test have students reflect on their score, what they did well and struggled with, and what they did to prepare. They can use that information to set a goal for what they will do differently next time. Self-reflection can help students make connections between homework, classwork, performance on tests, and projects, which can help motivate them moving forward.

#4: Competition is a Great Motivator

A lot of teachers hate it, but a huge number of kids in our classes enjoy all sorts of video games. I will admit, I was with them all they way until I had my own child. It was then I realized that video games offered kids opportunities for competition and positive rewards. Think about it for a second. What happens when a student beats a level in a game? Well in my house right now, they get to pop balloons and dance to a song, but every video game has some reward built in when they 'level up.' There is also the sense of competition; performing better than others or besting our own performance results in feelings of satisfaction. This can be a powerful motivator.


While we don't all have access to content-specific games, we can create that sense of competition and positive reward in the classroom. For example, when I had a tough crowd to motivate, we played a content game the last five minutes of every day. Sometimes it was just an online vocabulary game, or a quick five question quiz. However, I sold it to them as a game. Each class could earn points every day, and every couple of weeks I would hand out a reward to the 'high score' class. While the reward itself wasn't enough, the motivation to outwit each other got them excited about my class.

#5: To Motivate, Make it Fun

We know in reality that adults and kids aren't exactly motivated by all the same things. However, they do share one important area of motivation in learning: environment. Adults and students alike are more likely to be motivated if they find the class engaging. So sometimes you have to put your acting hat on and sell it like you mean it to students.

That means you have to get excited about the topics you teach (even the ones you hate) and put on a performance for students. For example, history is not my subject. I hated it all the way up to the tenth grade. Then I walked into Mr. Smith's class for the first time - and there he stood, dressed as George Washington. It was so hysterical that I couldn't help but be drawn into what he was saying. His excitement got me interested. As a science teacher, I hate dissection. However, every year I kill Wilbur Pig and stage a crime scene in my classroom. Why? It gets even the most reluctant kid excited about dissecting - regardless of the aroma that emulates from my room.

Unlocking Motivation

Motivating students is a complex process. There is no magic wand a presenter can sell you in a workshop to fix the motivation issues you are experiencing with students. However, the truth is there is no truly unmotivated student. They may appear unmotivated for a lot of reasons. For example, they may have a history of being unsuccessful in your class, but - and don't take it wrong - your lessons aren't really engaging. It might require you to change the way you teach a bit, and even put on an Academy Award winning performance, but you can motivate all of your students to learn.

By Rachel Tustin
January 2018
teachers engaging students

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