Motivating Your Students

Becky Kleanthous  · Nov 30th 2020

It’s 2pm on a Saturday and half your students are in their family homes, still lazing in bed, only occasionally opening their sleepy eyelids to check the glowing screen of their iPhones.


Motivation: the struggle is real. And if an irritated parent can’t force their stubbornly lethargic adolescent out of bed until dinner time, what hope do we teachers have of motivating them into academic success?

Actually, that may not be a fair comparison. Family dynamics are often fraught with tension, resistance and rebellion, whilst teachers - as neutral role models - have it slightly easier when we aim to make an impression. And as we entered this vocation with the dream of helping to realise each child’s potential (plus that cruel lie about six weeks off in summer!), we should seize this opportunity with both hands.

It truly is the holy grail: motivating students to succeed without a single whispered threat or financial bribe.

A culture of celebration

How would you describe the atmosphere and ethos of your classroom? Is it quiet and studious? Happy and raucous? Trudging and exasperated? We all know that the class dynamic is heavily influenced by the cocktail of students themselves, combined personalities often creating chemistry that is affectionate, argumentative or silly. But as the leader, you too have a big hand in shaping the feelings in that classroom.

Create a culture of motivation by recognising effort. This might mean celebrating an imperfect piece of work, just because a student has worked particularly hard on it. It might mean setting homework only when you can really see and explain the value in it. It might mean reading out or photocopying examples of great work to share with the rest of the class. If this takes hold and becomes the class culture, students themselves will help perpetuate it, praising and encouraging each other, and working harder at reaching their potential.

Be consistent in your recognition of effort. Any time you feel cynicism creep in and this ethos slip, remind yourself of your own motivation at work. What’s the impact when your Head of Department publicly or privately applauds your successes, versus ignoring them? Yep, thought so!

Leading feedback

Give students specific and achievable goals, so that you and they can actually see progress happening. It’s like climbing a mountain; when you turn back to see you’re two-thirds of the way up, it spurs you on further. You’d probably give up if you couldn’t see how far you’d come.

It’s good to talk

People hide wherever they can. If you shuffle into the room once the kids are already seated, then bolt out again before they’ve filled out, and never chat between lessons, then you are too easy to hide from. Obviously, forming positive relationships is excellent for teaching and learning anyway, and may even add the extra motivator of students aiming to impress you, but the key thing here is that students feel valuable. Talk with them one-to-one as often as possible to give students a sense of visibility, responsibility and accountability.

External motivators

Maybe their parents have offered driving lessons in exchange for good grades, or permission for a summer trip with friends. Maybe you have a coveted drawer full of reward stickers or sweets. This kind of motivation has its place, definitely, and it can work some of the time, for some people, so it’s not pointless, but it’s also not enough on its own. Intrinsic motivation - the inner drive to try - is typically much more powerful and longer-lasting.

Getting to the heart of it

Ask your students to think about why they’re here. “Don’t know”, “Nowhere else to go” and “Mum made me” are not sufficient responses. Ask follow-up questions - just “why?” might be enough - to get right to the heart of it. Motivation will vary wildly from one person to the next, but you may end up with factors such as…

  • to be a vet
  • to get good enough grades for uni, so I can move away from this town that I hate
  • to earn enough money to have freedom of choice in my life
  • to be seen as equal to or better than my smug older sister
  • to learn more about the environment because I’m scared for planet Earth
  • to get into a top university to fulfil my sense of identity
  • to achieve or maintain the approval of my family
  • to avoid having to choose my career just yet

Even something like “I’m here to be around my friends as much as possible” gives you a foothold on their intrinsic motivation. If they have to re-sit exams or miss out on their first-choice uni where their best mate Liam is going, then even this factor matters.

Here’s another effective way to drill down into their motivational core: ask students to note down where they expect to be in two years if they do well on this course. They should be as specific as possible. Then the same for 5, 10 and 20 years. Get them to talk to each other about their responses. Now ask them to jot down where they might be in 2, 5, 10 and 20 years if they don’t meet their potential on this course. The long-term impact on income, job title, location, life experience and satisfaction should help them to see the value of their studies.

Six of this, half a dozen of the other

Meet half-way between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation by getting pupils to set their own goals based on their own personalities. Think of it as leaving their conscience in charge. For some, it might be an embargo on video games until a set number of study hours is met that day. Others might give themselves incentives such as a trip to Costa Coffee if they complete a particular piece of work. Some might work well with the friendly peer-pressure of setting public targets (e.g. a daily Instagram post of their revision notes and study snack), so that they feel the encouragement and accountability of an audience.

OK, they’re motivated! Now what?

A learner that wants to learn is worth their weight in gold. Don’t just send them off to the library with a textbook and waste all that educational potential! Equip them with a variety of revision techniques to make the most of that magical motivation.

Revision timetables are a key ingredient of exam preparation for many students. It continues the familiar structure and rigour of lessons and creates manageable bites of learning which fit in with their other daily commitments. For the overly-nonchalant, it provides a tangible study target, whilst for the overly-committed / prone-to-obsession-and-anxiety, it’s an all-important licence to stop, eat, rest, relax and be social.

Variety is the spice of life

You may remember a not-too-distant trend in education which was all about ‘learning styles’. It became pretty huge and you probably even had to note things in your lesson plans to document how you were helping address the needs of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. You may also know that the importance of these styles have since been debunked, and they have quietly disappeared from many school documents. Having said that, it’s certainly true that some students are excellent listeners, whilst others might be fidgety and some may have excellent visual memory. It can’t hurt to provide some of these options to your students when it comes to revision, which would surely numb anyone’s grey matter if it only involved sitting, staring at a page for eight hours a day. Online videos, revision podcasts, songs, posters, spider charts and physical demonstrations will break up the monotony and keep the brain awake and engaged.

A change is as good as a rest

Revision is all-too-often treated as a simple notes-reading exercise. But very little information will be retained in the long-term memory simply from scanning some old scribbles from a Biology lab. Learners should be doing something with this information, ideally transforming it somehow, to help imprint information into different areas of the brain and therefore make the knowledge more secure.

What might this look like? Anything, really. It could be…

  • recording an audio story: a dramatic retelling of one soldier’s experiences of recruitment and trench warfare in WW1
  • drawing pictures: caricatures of philosophers with pictorial representations of their viewpoints (Eudaimonia = Aristotle with a big beard and set of scales, a small happy face on one side and a giant happy face on the other)
  • presentations: a slideshow of the characters or settings and their significance in The Color Purple
  • a pub quiz with questions entirely about radio waves, given to teams of friends or family and filmed for comic effect and memorability

Too much information

Talking of memory, humans have a really excellent visual memory, probably thanks to an evolutionary survival feature (“that kind of toadstool killed my friend”, “my cave is beyond those trees” etc.) Encourage your students to exploit this by studying different topics in different locations. Then, when they imagine themselves back in their dining room/bedroom / front garden in the exam, the relevant information should be slightly easier to retrieve.

After all their hard work, and their inevitable successes, you’ll no longer begrudge your students those 2pm lie-ins. It’ll be well-deserved, after all.

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