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Expanding the Toolbox: 6 Ways to Motivate Your Students

Friday, March 18, 2016 by Lindsay Will

5 Ways  to Motivate Your Students Diverse Learners

This time of year brings me back to some of the more challenging days in my third grade classroom in Jackson, MS. Even now, every day, I spend at least a few minutes wishing I could go back to that classroom and teach those students again, knowing what I know now. 

There was one student, Matthew, who I truly needed to see through my now, more polished lens. Matthew was a nearly six-foot tall third grader who seemed to be very unmotivated. He fell asleep the moment he sat in his desk each morning. I tried every strategy in my tiny toolbox at the time, including removing his chair, but the snoozing (picture a swaying tower) and lack of interest continued. In honor of all the Matthews in our schools, I’ve pulled together a few thoughts and resources to share about student motivation.

Increasing a student’s motivation requires a set of tools refined over time.

Jim Frabutt and I often turn to the research cited in the Top 20 Principles from Psychology for Teaching and Learning as a springboard for better serving diverse learners. In the last few weeks, I’ve spent some time with these principles, specifically those that focus on student motivation. Four are deeply connected to student motivation and the classroom.

To summarize, these four principles consist of intrinsic motivation (especially for complex tasks), mastery goals (over performance goals), teacher expectations (keeping them high for all learners), and appropriate goal setting. You can read more about each of them here.

The challenge is to translate these principles meaningfully into classroom practice. Here are a few strategies I wish I could have used with Matthew:

  • Offer student choice through differentiated instruction, to help satisfy his need for autonomy and build his self-efficacy (allowing him to tap his intrinsic motivation to approach learning).

  • Highlight grades as a tool for feedback and information, not as a tool for reward or punishment.

  • Encourage him to view mistakes as opportunities to learn, not an evaluation of his ability.

  • Gather continual assessment data to refine the reliability of the information forming my expectations. Question the data and consider his typically low student performance as an opportunity to disprove previous conclusions. Most importantly, keep expectations high.

  • Perform personal teacher self-checks to see if I might be treating him differently (high-expectancy vs. low-expectancy). Are only high-expectancy students sitting in the front? Is everyone getting a chance to participate in discussions? Is written feedback the same for all students?

  • Provide him with opportunities to set short-term, specific, and moderately difficult goals in his classroom work.

If my wish to teach Matthew again were granted, I know simply instituting the recommendations above wouldn’t solve all of his motivation issues. Increasing a student’s motivation requires a set of tools refined over time. However, I know these would have helped him and his classmates get on the path to achievement. In this season of low motivation, consider utilizing one of these strategies for your students who struggle to stay engaged in the classroom.