Why Students Aren't Motivated and How to Motivate Them

Julie, Head of Content and Curriculum, explains why students aren't motivated. She draws on current research to explain the primary causes, and shares her top three tips to increase student motivation in your classroom.

Updated on: October 22, 2019

Why Students Aren't Motivated and How to Motivate Them

Have you ever asked a student why they do their homework? Chances are the answer is something like this: "My teacher told me to." Have you ever asked a student why they go to school? Chances are the answer is something like this: "My parents make me." Have you ever asked a student what they like about school? Chances are the answer is lunch or recess. These are two times during the school day where students have some element of choice from where they will sit to what they will eat to what they will play on and who they will play with.

So perhaps it is no surprise that as students move up to higher grades they lose motivation. A recent Gallup poll found that 74% of fifth graders felt engaged, while only 32% of high schoolers felt engaged in their learning.

One of the most common teaching challenges is effectively motivating your students. There are two types of motivation: Intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when a task is personally or internally rewarding. Extrinsic motivation is when a task results in an award or is completed to avoid a punishment. From sticker charts to class parties to homework passes, rewarding students for good behavior or completing their school work is a common practice.

So what’s the problem with extrinsic motivation?

The reward, not the learning, becomes the motivation. When the reward stops, the motivation stops.

So what can we do differently?

It is much harder to create a classroom culture where the emphasis is placed on learning itself rather than getting a good grade. It takes much more work than a sticker chart. However, the long-term benefits are worth it for your students.

So how do we get started?

Provide Students With Opportunities For Choice

Chances are your students (especially middle grades or high school) are used to being told what to do rather than asked. When you begin to present them with choices in their learning, they might resist or ask you to choose for them. Don’t. Model how to make choices, and provide them with ample opportunity to do so. Remember, when a task is personally rewarding a student is motivated. Choice is agency, and a powerful motivation tool. One of my favorite strategies for providing students with opportunities for choice is to use Choice Boards.

A choice board provides a student with anywhere from three to nine different activities that they can work on to practice a skill or learn a topic. When a choice board is well-designed, the student is able to find an activity that they are excited about, and that excitement motivates them.

The choices can vary in terms of how the students are engaging with the material. Students might have the option to listen to an audiobook, watch a video, or read with a classmate. The choices can also vary in terms of what the students are doing. Are they drawing a picture? Are they completing a set of problems? Are they engaging in a discussion with other students?

Emphasize Feedback Over Grades

School traditionally emphasizes the product (grade) over the process (learning). Chances are you have given students feedback on their work, and the first thing they look at is the grade. They are less likely to read your feedback or see the value in it. Receiving a low grade hurts students’ motivation to learn. A low grade or failure sends the message that the student wasn’t successful. However, we know better than that.

Learning is a messy process that takes time, and failure is inevitable. If we want to motivate our students, we need to place more emphasis on the process of learning rather than the end result.

I am not saying you should never grade anything again or that grades aren’t helpful. However, I am suggesting that you consider de-emphasizing grades and instead prioritizing the process of learning. Give students feedback throughout the work rather than just at the end. Whenever possible, meet with students individually and share your feedback orally so they can receive it and ask questions. Model failure and name your mistakes to help your students understand that learning is messy.

Support Students In Setting Short-Term, Specific, and Moderately Difficult Goals

Goals can motivate students. Goals are especially motivating when they are short-term, specific, and achievable. Goals are also more motivating for students when they either set their own goals or work closely with their teacher to set those goals. If a student wants to become a stronger reader, an appropriate goal to set might be reading for fifteen minutes each day for a week and writing down one interesting thing they read. This helps the student make reading a habit, but it is realistic and it is less likely that the student will fail than if the goal was reading for an hour every day and writing a one page summary. When goals are short-term, specific and moderately difficult, those goals become habits.

Any step that you take in your classroom that emphasizes the process of learning and provides students with opportunities for choice and reflection will support students to feel motivated and engaged in their learning.

How do you motivate your students? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Julie Mason is the Head of Content and Curriculum for TeacherVision. She brings expertise in blended and personalized learning, instructional coaching, and curriculum design to the role. She was a middle and high school English teacher for eight years and most recently taught at Dana Hall, an all-girls school in Wellesley, MA. She was a blended and personalized learning instructional coach for K-12 teachers at BetterLesson for two years, and she has presented at The National Principals Conference, ISTE, and ASCD where she shared her expertised on how instructional coaching builds teacher capacity in K-12 schools. She has extensive experience designing and facilitating professional development for teachers, and she oversees the TeacherVision advisory board.

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