Skip to main content

Motivating Students

By September 12, 2019May 8th, 2021Education-Family

You walk into your 6th grade music class on the first day of school and all students are sitting with their arms crossed. Or more likely, they are texting each other. Maybe your 7th grade English class exclaims as a group, “We hate to write.” How do you motivate students to want to learn? That’s a question a teacher just asked me. Ideas follow.

IDEA #1: Give students a chance to select what they will learn.

On the first day of class, hand out a sheet. Have students write down three things they are confident they know about the unit (or course in general). Then have them write three things they don’t do very well or need to know about the unit.

For example, for things they don’t know, English Language Learners may write down grammar rules or spelling. Music students might not be able to read complicated rhythms or the bass clef. Science students may be confused over terminology or just believing things they can’t physically see.

Tell students the second part – the “what you need to know” is hugely important. The reason is that you, the teacher, will cover everything they write down.

At this point, students understand they will have some part in what they will be learning. (I keep these papers and refer to them so I really do cover what students said they need to know.)

IDEA #2: Arrange what you do so students think it’s their idea.

I had 4th grade students who were not interested in reading The Sign of the Beaver.  I brought in some wampum for them to feel and started talking about Native Americans of the NE region of the USA. I asked them what they would like to know about them. They started throwing ideas at me (music, games, food, weapons) and that was the start of a hugely successful multi-discipline unit. (Mind you, every day they walked into class, I had routine, BUT I always did something “out of the box” so they never knew what to expect.)

One day I showed them how to pronounce a lake in Massachusetts called Chargoggagoggmunchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. Of course, they had to practice it, but at any time during the next week (at recess, in the hall, at lunch) they could say it memorized to me and would get an “A.” They loved it. 

It ended up that the students not only read The Sign of the Beaver paired or as a class but presented a musical Native American program to the younger grades. It was all…ah…their idea.

Are you teaching middle or high school history? Have students draw an event to put on a timeline (if you draw it, you don’t forget it), make a poster, or stage a drama skit. Give suggestions and let them choose. And yes, much of this can involve research.

Often times, whatever I teach has been my plan all along…or mostly my plan. (I really do take student ideas.) I just lead students so they THINK it’s their idea. They take ownership. They want to do it.

Note: When working with 6th grade homeschooled students, they develop their entire year of study based on their interests (except for math).

IDEA #3: Ask questions.

Spark their curiosity. Have them discover, create, and problem-solve. Don’t accept the line, “Just tell me what to do.” Create thinkers. Challenge them.

IDEA #4: When giving a writing assignment, have students write about important or useful issues. 

Yes, in English, there are times when using prompts to teach HOW to write is appropriate; but in any class, have students write about something important to them. Something of quality.

  • I live where there are rattlesnakes. I had a student write a pamphlet that explained how to be careful while hiking. He worked with a USFS biologist and two medical doctors. The pamphlet was put at the local library.
  • When I lived overseas, there was an issue with wild dogs. Some people wanted to cull them. Others felt that wild dogs were the same as other wild animals, like monkeys, and should be left alone and protected. Students chose sides, did research, and expressed their opinions. This issue was really important to them.
  • One university professor needed an “ESL-popular music” unit for a military academy where he also taught. I had each high school student in my class develop grammar activities through a piece of popular music they chose (with my approval). Each section was written in English but needed translations in Arabic and French. We created a book and yes, the military men used it.

IDEA #5: Surprise them.

I mentioned this in #2, but really, establish a routine for your classroom and then surprise them. Maybe it’s note-taking by drawing, food to eat that relates to your unit, drama, dance, singing, art, playing games on the floor, going outside, reading somewhere else. Get them out of their seats and doing…and I’m talking about any grade, any class. Make it FUN.


IDEA #6: Encourage students to follow their interests. 

If you are studying the Middle Ages, encourage each student choose something to study that really interests them. (Sometimes they can do a project that will double for 4-H or another class.)  Also, some students remember history through fashion, horses, weapons, music, or inventions instead of wars. That’s OK. Let them think that way.

IDEA #7: Name your class. 

 As an elementary reading teacher, I was given an upper-level class.  The students timidly walked in on the first day and I said, “You are the chosen ones. For some reason you have been chosen to be in MY class.” They became The Chosen Ones. (I told them about the British green jackets of the same name at some point.) Anyway, among other things, the kids excelled in Latin and Greek. Every year, younger students would tell me they hoped to be a part of The Chosen Ones when they got to grade 5. 

I often name my classes or they choose a name for their class. That class becomes a club, and the whole feel is different from a “class.”

IDEA #8: Build on what they do well.

On the first day of reading groups, I stood outside my class. A bunch of 2nd grade boys entered and sat down. These boys had a reputation for being the most difficult kids of all time. (I never realized I would get them all at once.)  There were seven.  I smiled at them and said they were The Magnificent Seven. (I probably hummed the theme song.) My whole focus was to find what they did well and build on it. (And yes, I worked my tail off for them.) 

In the end?  I loved the kids. They were brilliant, inquisitive, polite, and hard-working. They were probably motivated because I found the best in them and I believed in them. They lived up to my expectations. Indeed, they were The Magnificent Seven. I won’t forget that class.

As expected, I transfer this approach to my high school research-writing classes. I see what they do well and capitalize on it.

IDEA #9: Find something special for your kids. Any grade. Any class.

One time I had 14 fifth-grade boys in a below-level reading class. They read at the 2nd or early 3rd grade level. (Yes, I got them to grade level in a year but the how is another story.) 

One thing that really helped with their self-esteem was on every Friday I gave them the “TIME for Kids Magazine.” They loved the articles and we had great discussions. The point is that those boys were the only students in school who had a copy of the weekly magazine.  You can imagine how popular they became. They worked for me all week so they could get that magazine on Friday.  

IDEA #10: Change the set-up of your classroom.

Depending on what I’m teaching, I like the horseshoe formation – especially at the high school level. I like to walk behind students when they are working at their laptops. I always have another place in the classroom for those students to interact in pairs or groups.

If I’m teaching reading groups of 8-12 kids, I want tables in a square box formation. The middle of the box is filled in with tables. There is plenty of space to work.

All of my kids face the front of the classroom.

I cannot live without maps. They are critical to my room set-up. 

One year, for a 10th grade writing class of 15 students, I had a table with a pot of hot water and tea available for the students at any time. Yes, that was motivating. I only did it for that class. It helped with writing because the kids felt comfortable.

Also, although vaguely relating to room set-up, I have only two class rules: Focus and Use Manners. I do explain those terms.

BTW, if you are homeschooling, the way you set up your house to teach can make a big difference in the success of your year.

IDEA #11: Keep the curiosity going.

If you are at home or homeschooling, there is no such thing as “motivation.” From birth to age 6, your kids will be interested in what you are interested in. They’re fascinated with the natural world. They want to cook with you; help you.

  • For PS and elementary, find fabulous night-time reading books. (First, with or without your help, have your child brush his teeth, wash his face, get into night-time clothes, and then meet you on the couch for reading. For some kids who struggle with doing many tasks, you might want to say, “Brush your teeth and report back to me.” Then, “Get your nighttime clothes on and report back to me.”) Also, find books at the library that follow their interests and leave them on a table in the living room.
  • From K-2 have a “Dear Daddy” book. Once a week, have your children write to Daddy, asking a question or making a comment. (Yes, yes, it can be Mom.) Have Daddy answer the question, writing clearly and simply on Thursday night, so the books are on the breakfast table every Friday morning. EXAMPLE: My kids often asked science questions: “Dear Daddy, How dus corel grow? How can corel reefs form? How can corel stae aliev with all of that salt water? can you answer that?”  (age 7)  Sometimes kids will pro-con an issue and ask for Daddy’s advice. This is how to get kids to love to write and be excited about the written word. 
  • One homeschooled high school student came up to me. “I don’t know the language of Shakespeare, but I wish I did.” I responded, “So you are telling me you would like to study perhaps a sonnet or a play?” Yes, the student wanted to do that. Are you amazed that kids are still curious at that age?

Going back to homeschooling… Home-educated kids are generally not driven by external means – grades, competition, fear, threats, or rewards, because they are internally motivated from the get-go. They become inspired by their own ideas and follow through.

IDEA #12: Take away their cell phones.

I understand you have to follow the rules of your school.  After much experimentation, I don’t allow cell phones in my classroom. Students can drop them off in a basket that I hold when they enter the class, or put them in a large individual phone holder on the inside of my door. (Sometimes I even have to say, “And your other cell phone….”) It’s tough to motivate kids when they can’t tear themselves away from their phones. (There are times I let ESL students have their phones to look up words.)

IDEA #13: Treat kids with respect.

I have a tendency to treat kids older than they are.  They in turn, want to impress me.

IDEA #14: Focus on the process.

Some students are motivated because I will focus on the process, not just the product.

IDEA #15: Use class time wisely.

I don’t believe in homework. (Another blog topic.)  My students don’t goof off in class nor, might I add, do they rush through assignments and give me a half-done paper or half-effort.

They also know if they work with me, they won’t have any homework. The exceptions would be studying for a test or needing additional quiet time for a writing assignment. Is this motivating? Of course.

IDEA #16: Give material rewards…sometimes.

I work on students acquiring skills not because of rewards but because of the desire to learn, which is something they value. That said, there are times I use stickers and pencils as rewards. In piano or music classes, I give out ribbons. 

When I teach through my book Word Archeology: Digging Up Latin and Greek Roots, I give out a Latin bookmark at a milestone. At the end of the year, I put on an evening event for parents where students share what they have learned through games. (Yes, I involve the parents and yes, I should write up what I do to share with other teachers.) Students then get SUCH an amazing certificate (it’s in my book) that grades don’t matter. It’s the certificate they want and will forever hang on their wall. (They can also put the completed course under “education” on their resumes.)

IDEA #17: Integrate subjects.  (Kind of a repeat of #5.)

IDEA #18: Tell kids it’s OK to guess.



One high school teacher said to me, “The only way you can get students to learn is to force it down their throats.” I understand what he was saying, but I don’t go there.

In my class students WANT to learn. Why? Because the stuff we’re working on is so incredibly fun and interesting. (I don’t let them just sit for the whole class, but rather have them up and moving.) Also, I’m curious and so my students are curious—and I’m talking K-12. I’m interested and so my students are interested.

How do I keep life so interesting for me? For them? I live. I don’t live through TV or a cell phone. I explore. When not at home I’m…

  •      discussing deformed frogs with a biologist,
  •      digging for clams,
  •      kayaking among sea turtles,
  •      biking with students in Italy,
  •      examining the firing lines of bastions,
  •      hiking “to the top,”
  •      and of course, enjoying time with friends.

Please add more ideas to this post!


Join the discussion One Comment