How to motivate students (Part Two)

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

This is the second of a two-part article. Read the first part here

In part one of this article, I explained the importance of developing pupils’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. But I also explained that telling pupils they have to pay attention in class because what we intend to teach will be useful in a few years’ time is a bit of a hard sell.

What pupils really need, I explained, is a more contemporary purpose and a more relevant reason to learn. In short, pupils need to know that paying attention is worth their time and energy today, not just tomorrow. The pay-off has to be immediate not years hence. Moreover, pupils need the pay-off to be related to their individual aspirations.

So what else can we do to motivate pupils who cannot see a purpose in learning? First, we can engender a culture of excellence in our classroom…

A culture of excellence

The first step towards motivating pupils to produce high-quality work is to set tasks which inspire and challenge them and which are predicated on the idea that every pupil will succeed, not just finish the task but produce work which represents personal excellence.

The most effective tasks offer pupils an opportunity to engage in genuine research not just that invented for the classroom. What’s more, a pupil’s finished product needs a real audience. This means there is a genuine reason to do the work well, not just because the teacher wants it that way. Not every piece of work can be of genuine importance of course, but every piece of work can be displayed, presented, appreciated, and judged by people outside the classroom.

Class work also works best when it is structured in such a way as to make it difficult for pupils to fall too far behind or fail. Tasks also work best when they are broken into a set of clear components so that pupils have to progress through checkpoints to ensure they are keeping up. Good tasks have in-built flexibility to allow for a range of abilities.

Class work works best when it has in-built rubrics, checklists if you like, which make clear what is expected of each pupil at each stage of development. In other words, the rubric spells out exactly what components are required in the assignment, what the timeline for completion is, and on what qualities and dimensions the work will be judged.

However, it is not enough simply to make a list, a rubric, of what makes a good finished product, be that an essay or a science experiment. It is not enough to read a great piece of literature and analyse the writing, or to look at the work of a great scientist. If we want our pupils to write a strong essay, to design a strong experiment, we need to show them what a great essay or experiment looks like. We need to admire models, find inspiration in them, and analyse their strengths and weaknesses. In short, we need to work out what makes them strong.

Making learning meaningful

Pupils are motivated to learn when they regard class work as personally meaningful and when learning fulfils an educational purpose…

Class work can be made personally meaningful if we begin by triggering pupils’ curiosity. In other words, at the start of the first lesson on a new topic we could use a “hook” to engage our pupils’ interest and initiate questioning. A hook can be anything: a video, a lively discussion, a guest speaker, a field trip, or a text.

Many pupils find school work meaningless because they don’t perceive a need to know what they’re being taught. They are not motivated by their teacher’s insistence that they should learn something because they’ll need it later in life or for the next module on the course, or because it might be in the exam. With a compelling task, however, the reason for the learning becomes clear: pupils need to know this in order to meet the challenge they have just accepted.

Class work can also be made personally meaningful to pupils if we pose a big question that captures the heart of a topic in clear, compelling language, and which gives pupils a sense of purpose and challenge. A big question should be provocative, open, and complex. The question can be abstract or concrete, or it can be focused on solving a problem.

Without a big question, pupils may not understand why they are undertaking a task. They may know that the series of activities they are engaged in are in some way connected, but they may not be clear as to exactly how or why.

Class work can be made personally meaningful to pupils if they are given some choice about how to conduct the work and present their findings. Indeed, the more choice, the better. Where choice is limited, pupils can select what topic to study within a general big question or choose how to design, create, and present their findings.

Class work fulfils an educational purpose

Class work can fulfil an educational purpose if it provides opportunities to build metacognition and character skills such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking, which will serve pupils well in the workplace as in life.

Class work can fulfil an educational purpose if it makes learning meaningful by emphasising the need to create high-quality products and performances through the formal use of feedback and drafting. Pupils need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality. Instead, frequent revision is a feature of real-world work. In addition to providing direct feedback, we can coach pupils in using rubrics and other sets of assessment criteria in order for pupils to critique each other’s work.

More tips for motivating pupils

Here are some other suggestions for motivating apathetic pupils:

Growth mindset: We could help unmotivated pupils to understand that setbacks and mistakes are a normal part of the learning process. As they begin to enjoy more success, their confidence will grow and they will be more willing to take risks.

Choice: We could provide unmotivated pupils with a choice of assignments. An unmotivated pupil is often more likely to work hard if they have a say in what they do in class and for homework.

Interest: We could try to incorporate pupils’ interests into our lessons. For example, if a pupil has a paper round, we could design a maths question that requires them to calculate how much they would earn delivering papers under various conditions.

Real life: We could try to relate lessons to real life. Unmotivated pupils often want to know “Why do I have to know this?” We can help them to see how what they learn in school can be applied to life outside the classroom. For example, we could show how being able to count is essential when buying things.

Chunk it: We could break tasks down into manageable steps. Some pupils become demotivated because they find assignments too overwhelming. It may help, therefore, to present assignments in small chunks, thus allowing pupils to progress one step at a time. If we do this, it is important that pupils do not move on until they have completed each step and achieved their target. While adults tend to be good at seeing the big picture and breaking a task down into logical steps, this skill is rarely intuitive for pupils.

Personal progress: We could focus on pupils’ individual progress rather than on their performance relative to the rest of the class. If we compare a pupil to class-mates who consistently outperform them – even if their poor attainment is down to a lack of effort rather than ability – the pupil will become discouraged and may give up entirely. We can avoid this by focusing on the pupil’s personal improvement. We could, for example, assess pupils through a portfolio assessment in which we evaluate work completed throughout the year and consider the progress the pupil has made from their starting point as the measure of their performance.

Competition: Although we should avoid comparing one pupil with another, there is no harm in comparing a pupil’s earlier performance with their later performance – in other words, encouraging pupils to compete against themselves. We could, for example, assess initial performance to establish a baseline (say, in a pre-topic quiz), then keep track of how much a pupil improves (in speed, in accuracy, in detail) each time we re-test them on the same topic.

Variety: We could give pupils the knowledge they need – through direct instruction – but then allow time for them to work with that knowledge, to think about it and to apply it in practice, as well as give them a chance to contribute. There should be a variety of teaching and learning strategies, a balance between teacher-led and pupil-led approaches, and between individual, pair and group work.

Model: Enthusiasm is contagious. If we are not enthusiastic about teaching our subject and about teaching our pupils, then we can’t expect our pupils to be enthusiastic about learning. Indeed, the Golem Effect theory has us believe that the lower our expectations of pupils, the worse they perform – and if pupils begin to exhibit behaviours in line with the labels we give them, then surely they will also mirror the attitudes we model. The Pygmalion Effect, meanwhile, has it that the higher our expectations of pupils, the better they perform. It follows, the more enthusiastic we are, the more enthusiastic our pupils will become.

Safe space: We could create a safe, supportive and sharing environment. This means modelling the growth mindset and making pupils comfortable with discomfort – eager and willing to take on challenges and accept that making mistakes is an integral part of the learning process – but it also means making the physical environment conducive to thinking and learning. Sitting in a moulded plastic chair all day listening to a teacher talk is uncomfortable and boring. As such, we should try to mix things up – give pupils a chance to get up and move around the room (or indeed out of it) and we, too, should vary our position in the room, moving in-between pupils, sometimes teaching from the back of the room.

Realistic goals: The Pygmalion Effect, as I have explained, dictates that we should have high expectations of every pupil. But we need to be careful to ensure that our expectations are also realistic. After all, to develop the drive to achieve, pupils need to believe that achievement is possible. A failure to attain unrealistic goals can disappoint and frustrate pupils. If the end goal seems unattainable, we could encourage pupils to focus on their continued improvement, on achieving step-goals, not just on their final grade in a test. We could also help pupils to evaluate their own progress by encouraging them to critique their work, to analyse their strengths, and tackle their weaknesses.

Questions: We could ask lots of questions in the classroom. Sometimes, the best way to teach something new is to tell pupils. But sometimes it will be more motivating to ask rather than tell. We could, for example, encourage pupils to suggest approaches to a problem or to guess the results of an experiment before they conduct it, asking “What do you think will happen when we combine these two chemicals and why?”

Concrete: We could connect abstract learning to concrete examples. After all, the case-study method has proven very effective in medicine, law and business. Making the abstract concrete involves applying theories and concepts to a real-world scenario, using these formulations to analyse and make sense of situations involving real people and real stakes.

Objectives: We could clearly define the objectives. Pupils want and need to know what is expected of them in order to stay motivated to learn. At the beginning of the year, therefore, we should set out clear objectives, rules, and expectations of pupils so that there is no confusion and pupils have goals to work towards. We should re-state those objectives, rules and expectations at regular intervals, repeatedly reinforcing them.

Model: Ultimately, the best approach we can take is to be the model at all times: to remain, as difficult as it can be, the mature adult in the room. That means we get to know and care about all our pupils, and that we’re kind, and calm and patient. It also means we’re respectful and supportive, and forever forgiving of our pupils’ mistakes.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley



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