How to motivate students (Part One)

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in April 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

When I first started exercising a couple of years ago, following a bout of ill-health, I could muster but 15 minutes’ half-hearted jogging on a treadmill while watching trash television before collapsing, coughing and spluttering, to the floor.

Until, that is, I had an idea. What I did next not only helped me conquer my natural phobia of physical activity, it also taught me a lesson about motivation – a secret that I believe can help unlock the potential of our most reluctant, difficult-to-reach pupils.

The only time I’d really enjoyed exercise was when, as a younger man, I went hiking or cycling in the Yorkshire Dales. This is because the exercise had been a by-product of enjoying the landscape. And so my first stab at a solution to my problem of motivation was to try simulate the great outdoors indoors, to stimulate me visually and kinaesthetically (that is to say, I wanted to watch something that gave me the sensation of movement, of being outdoors, rather than stare at a static image of a beautiful landscape).

Watching television shows while jogging hadn’t inspired me to keep going or to run faster. I’d just wanted to stop, get off the treadmill and watch television from the comfort of a sofa.

There was, I think, too much of a disconnect between what I was doing and what I was watching. It broke my concentration. It may have stimulated me, but it also distracted me from the task and so I quickly grew bored of exercise. I needed to watch something that related to the physical activity I was engaged in so my body and mind were united in common cause.

Accordingly, I began watching videos of virtual runs because – as well as moving through some beautiful landscapes – the person who was running in front of me on the screen provided a focus – they were a pace-setter and I wished to keep up. I set my running pace by theirs and kept running because they kept running. What’s more, because I now had a fixed destination to reach, I was determined not to give up until I had crossed that finish line.

The first thing I learnt about motivation, therefore, was the importance of having a destination to aim for and a model to follow, an exemplar, someone to look up to, to aspire to, and on whom to base my technique.

I realised it was important that this coach was regarded as an expert in their field, too, and that they set high expectations for me to follow.

But the running videos were only part of the solution. I also found motivation in music.

Now that I was watching a silent video of someone running, I could listen to music rather than the television soundtrack. I quickly realised that music – particularly loud, fast music – made me run faster. Indeed, the louder and faster the music, the faster I ran. And music made me feel happier too which, in turn, made exercise feel less of a chore and more like an enjoyable way to relax and unwind.

The second thing I learnt about motivation, therefore, was the importance of personalisation – of being able to make choices and express preferences about the way you perform a task so that carrying out that task is made more enjoyable and you are more engaged in it.

I’m a rare breed: an English teacher who loves data. I was gifted a well-known brand of fitness watch for my birthday shortly after I took up running. It monitors my heart rate and physical activity and uploads data to my SmartPhone then provides me with a range of graphs with which I can bore people at parties.

What this data did while I was in the early stages of my exercise routine two years ago was provide me with rich information that allowed me to set short, medium and long-term goals, then monitor my on-going progress and evaluate my outcomes.

My watch also regularly rewarded me for my achievements. I received notifications when I accomplished certain goals and was sent motivational messages about how close I was to achieving the next milestone. It was important that these milestones were within my reach – if it told me I could achieve my daily target by, say, going on a half-hour run just before bedtime, it would have demotivated me with a goal beyond my capabilities. If, however, it told me to climb the stairs a few times, it would have spurred me on.

The third thing I learnt about motivation, therefore, was the importance of having regular updates of progress towards my destination, which in turn provide a feeling of continuous movement in the right direction. Two years on, I’m still exercising.

In summary, then, I learnt that motivation requires:

  1. A destination to aim for – knowing what the outcome looks like and not giving up until you reach it.
  2. A model to follow – an exemplar on which to base your technique provided by someone who is regarded as an expert and who sets high expectations.
  3. Regular checkpoints to show what progress has been made and what’s still to do, coupled with regular celebrations of on-going achievements and timely messages about upcoming milestones.
  4. Personalisation – the ability to make choices about how to carry out tasks in order to increase enjoyment and engagement.


In the classroom, there are two types of motivation that matter most: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, in order to gain new knowledge. Often, intrinsic motivation is driven by an inherent interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within an individual rather than relying on external pressures or necessity.

Put simply, it is the desire to do something even though there is no reward except a sense of accomplishment at achieving that thing. Intrinsic motivation is a natural motivational tendency and is a critical element in cognitive, social and physical development.

Pupils who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to engage in a task willingly as well as work to improve their skills, which – in turn – increase their capabilities. Pupils are likely to be intrinsically motivated if:

  1. They attribute their educational results to factors under their own control, also known as autonomy.
  2. They believe in their own ability to succeed in specific situations or to accomplish a task – also known as a sense of self-efficacy.
  3. They are genuinely interested in accomplishing something to a high level of proficiency, knowledge and skill, not just in achieving good grades – also known as mastery.

Extrinsic motivation

If the “want” to learn is concerned with intrinsic motivation, we might loosely argue that the “need” to learn – the purpose – is linked to extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain a desired outcome.

Extrinsic motivation comes from influences outside an individual’s control – a rationale, a necessity, a need.

Common forms of extrinsic motivation are rewards (for example, money or prizes), or – conversely – the threat of punishment.

We can provide pupils with a rationale for learning by sharing the “big picture” with them. In other words, we can continually explain how their learning fits in to the module, the course, the qualification, their careers and to success in work and life. For example, we can explain how today’s lesson connects with yesterday’s lesson and how the learning will be extended or consolidated next lesson, as well as how it will be assessed at a later stage. We can explain how this learning will become useful in later life, too. And we can connect the learning in one subject with the learning in other subjects, making explicit the transferability of knowledge and skills and the interconnectedness of skills in everyday life.


This is not to suggest that pupils will possess either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Rather, it is desirable for pupils to possess or develop both. Pupils should both want and need to learn.
However, it is natural that some pupils will lack the want to learn and so instilling in them the need to learn becomes all the more important.

The here and now

We all know – because we’re mature and worldly adults – that learning is a reward in itself. We know that, although we might not use algebra in our everyday lives, it was something worth learning at school.

We know, too, that understanding how rhythm and metre works in poetry is a good thing even if it is not something we rely on every day. Knowing stuff makes us cultured, civilised people; it helps us to access and appreciate the world around us. Knowledge allows us to interpret, understand and synthesise new information more easily and quickly, and to create schemata in long-term memory that makes us more efficient thinkers.

But pupils cannot – and should not be expected to – understand this.

So although painting the big picture of learning for our pupils (explaining how what we are teaching today consolidates and extends upon what pupils learnt yesterday, and how today’s learning will be built upon and utilised in the future) is important because pupils need to regard the learning process as something long-term rather than an isolated chunk (the “lesson”) demarcated on a school timetable, and because it can help to develop pupils’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, sometimes this simply isn’t enough.

Telling pupils that paying attention in class today matters because what we intend to teach them will be useful in a few years’ time when they sit an exam, go on to further or higher education, and get a job is, let’s be honest, a bit of a hard sell.

After all, pupils – particularly in key stage 3 – have little regard for the future; GCSEs seem a long way off, and post-16 study, university and the world of work are but dreams, blurred specks on a distant horizon.

What pupils really need – if they are to be motivated to learn – is a more contemporary purpose and a more relevant rationale. In short, pupils need to know that paying attention in class is worth their time and energy now, in the short-term. The pay-off has to be immediate, not years away. Moreover, pupils need the pay-off to be related to their individual aspirations.

So what can we do to motivate those pupils who cannot see a purpose in learning what we need to teach? Find out in part two of this article.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley



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