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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Motivation Strategies

Motivation Strategies

Related Tags: 6-8 Middle School
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How do you handle students who are not motivated to learn? Do you have any ideas as to how to increase motivation? Many of my students will not even try to do their work. When it comes to testing, they mark anything to be finished or try to get someone to give them answers. What can I do?

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Jason's picture
high school math teacher

Unfortunately, I have the same problem. I wish I had the perfect answer, but I'm not sure I do. I feel like a professional motivator at times but it's difficult to even do that. One thing that has work a little for me is bonus points. I give out bonus points for board work and various activities. I recently started giving out bonus points for homework because I have a hard time getting my students to complete homework. The bonus points should act as an incentive because for every ten bonus points they accumulate, they receive a 100 to be averaged into their average. If you haven't tried this yet you can give it a shot.

Bill Betzen's picture
Bill Betzen
Retired computer teacher, Dallas, Texas, with dropout prevention hobby.

Student motivation is something I have been working on for decades, in my own children and for the past 11 years in the middle school where I teach. I teach computer applications, one of the more popular classes, but I would still have unmotivated students.

I came from 28 years as a child placement social worker. I focused on being certain my children all were placed with their history going with them. History is critical for every person. But in my inner-city middle school I quickly noticed that too many of my students had no focus on their own story, their own history. Such students with no history, often due to a missing parent, were too often those with no motivation.

In 2005 we started the School Archive Project. Parents/caretakers of new middle school students get the ball rolling by writing a letter to their new middle school child about their dreams for their child. The child then uses that letter to write a letter to themselves about their own plans for the future. Both letters are placed into one self-addressed envelope that is placed into the vault. Then the last month of middle school those letters are pulled, read, and new letters written, this time looking 10 years into the future. Students leave for high school after putting those letters back into the vault. They know they will be invited back to a 10-year reunion. At that reunion they know they will both get their letters back and be asked to speak with then current middle school students about their recommendations for success. They are warned to be ready for questions like "What would you do differently if you were 13 again?"

This is one reason our graduation rates at Sunset High School have almost doubled in 4 years! When you talk with a child about their history and plans for the future motivation appears to evolve much more often. There are quiet moments and over a few weeks students begin to realize they have a future. It makes a difference. Every day they pass the 500-pound vault bolted to the floor in our lobby with their letters as a reminder. There are now over 2500 letters in that vault. Intrinsic motivation is the most powerful. Students do the work for themselves.

Lisa's picture

How a student views the learning process can be critical to their motivation. Dweck and Legget (1988) did a study that explored outcomes based on a student's adoption of performance goals (gaining favorable judgments) verses learning goals (increasing competence) and the implications for learning are significant. I do suggest you read the study (info below) but essentially if a student views intelligence as a "fixed" capacity then tests, assignments and problem-solving in general all become a measure revealing capacity (performance goal.) On the other hand, if a student views intelligence as flexible then hard work and effort factor into the learning process and learning goals increase competence.

There are many things that inform a student's thinking about intellectual capacity but an emphasis on grades verses effort likely communicates volumes to students. When achievement is linked to effort a very different mindset emerges. Giving students the opportunity to continue to work on problems until they demonstrate mastery emphasizes the importance of the effort rather than the grade, it's not when you get there but that you get there. Supporting the progress of students at different stages of mastery is of course a challenge but feedback and encouragement are key to learning. Think of video games, they provide immediate feedback and kids stick with them until they master a skill both because of the feedback and the knowledge that practice improves performance. When a student believes that with enough effort he or she will be able to master the material the feeling of optimism can be very motivating. Of course, explicit instruction in effective practice can go a long way too.

When students behave in ways that are maladaptive it's helpful to question what's at the root of the behavior. It could be how a student or students view their own capacity that is the roadblock.

Dweck,C.S.& Leggett, E.L.(1988). A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality. Psychological Review. 95,2,256-273.

Larry's picture

I've read Dr. Dweck's ideas and decided to incorporate them into the Study System I've created for Middle School, High School and College students. You can see the website she's created about Midset at very good approach

Even students who are now successful can have a fixed mindset - thinking there is a limit to what they can learn. If they don't believe they can learn much more, it's a self fulfilling prophesy, then they can't and don't. It's less an issue of effort than an issue of belief about self and abilities.

I am now teaching students about these concepts and tying them to learning good study skills since I believe they can learn any idea or skill from anyone if they know what to do. We can't depend on having a teacher who knows how to teach each student so I'm putting the skills and power in the hands of students

Check out my websie at:
The more we teach students what's possible, the better equiped they'll be to learn when they're ready. In this world, students in school will have to learn new ideas and skills all their lives

Bill Betzen's picture
Bill Betzen
Retired computer teacher, Dallas, Texas, with dropout prevention hobby.

Larry and Lisa,
I could not agree with you more about the power of Dr. Dweck's work. It was the first year of the School Archive Project, 2005-2006, when her Mindset book was first published. I found it and was in 7th heaven. She put to words what we were trying to do in motivating our students to work and grow.

An attempt was made to capture her philosophy on the pages at which describe why the School Archive Project works.

Dr. Dweck had been encouraging our efforts since our first email back in 2006. We are making progress! A major component for a growth mindset is a focus on the future, knowing that your work will make a difference.

In my Computer Applications classes every year I have a graphics exercise wherein students use a photo of themselves to make a poster with those critical words: "Love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on Learning!"

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

It changed the way I see myself and therefore my students too. It's more compassionate to all of us, and more productive and humble.

But the big q. of motivation...

Yeah, some IS cultural. Our students have been trained to get ()(*&^ school out the way so they can do their real lives. So linking real life to school concepts and skills (and vice versa) has to be part of the answer. Relevance.

But that's not enough, it's too serious on it's own. There has to be an element of playfulness - maybe a mystery as is in both detective novels and inquiry-based science. Or maybe something funny, cool or related to food to get students engaged and give experience that they personally WANT to investigate.

Finally, and most difficult, is giving students CHOICE as often and in as many ways as we can without losing our minds. We all do so much better if we can choose what and how to do something meaningful. Even little choices like the color of slime they make in a polymers lab. Right up to what world issue do they want to work on? Who with? And what will they do? We are trying with the Take Action Project, and with the Problems with Oil Project in ms science classrooms.

So project-based learning has some of the answers. But only if the teacher is sufficiently well-planned and in the learning mindset for it to be fun and for her/him to be flexible and responsive.

mariana morais's picture

It is interesting to see that this problem is faced in other countries too. I teach in Brazil and last year we developed a project with our students called "The power of the vision" there is a video with this name and it is very intereting. We used many tools including the film "Gifted Hands", and it was divided it into many steps. We couldn`t finished the project but until the point we got we could see changes and I could see what Bill Betzen said above "(...) students begin to realize they have a future. It makes a difference". Sometimes it is frustating to see that the only thing we have to get students` interest is the grade. But in my school the lack of interest was reaching such proportions that not even the grades could reach their interest. I believe that some projects like the one Bill Betzen told can be a good tool.

Bill Betzen's picture
Bill Betzen
Retired computer teacher, Dallas, Texas, with dropout prevention hobby.

Mariana Morais, you have focused in the critical issue. Few teachers would argue with the reality that the worst class to teach is a class of students who do not care about their futures. As I talk of a 10 year reunion it is very common to have middle school students simply state, not always joking, that "I will be dead by then." Until we can help our students fill in that blank of what their future may be, we will go nowhere. Yes, we have students die violently, or by drug complications/overdose, almost every year. But until we can help them begin to realize a future, they will less often put on their seat belts. We must change their world view. Every educator does that for their students to some extent. It is most critical among our schools with 97% of their students from families of poverty compounded by life in the city. Piece by piece we must help our students put together their own lives. We cannot do that work for them! We can only provide the opportunity. That is what the School Archive Project provides, as a Language Arts Class writing project, with very real connections to the past and the future.

Josh Ledford's picture
Josh Ledford
6th Grade

My first year of teaching had students that, for the most part, only cared about recess and video games. Staying in at recess didn't motivate them to get caught up to get back outside. Instead, they wasted time and gave me a headache. I implicated a money system, an idea from a colleague that used it years before. The whole premise is that school is their job and this is what life is about, you need to earn money to have things you want. They earn money for nearly everything; homework complete, passing a quiz/test, following the rules exceptionally well, or compliments from other teachers. They can also lose money; not completing homework/projects, being sent out of the classroom, not following rules, and I even have them pay rent on their desk. The rent is minimal though. I also make stops at the dollar store to buy candy and little prizes that they can buy with their money. It made a great change in that group and I still use it today, in my third year.

Katie Bess's picture

This sounds like a great idea. The closest I have come to this idea is by having a marble jar. If students all completed assignments, if they had class averages at a certain level, if they all behaved in class and had on issues, they would receive their marbles for the day. If students showed acts of kindness they were able to place more marbles in the jar. When the jar reaches the top, the students receive an ice cream or pizza party outside one Friday. Soon enough, the students will start asking what they can do to get the marbles.

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