Six Ways To Motivate Students To Learn

| September 2, 2013 | 39 Comments
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Scientific research has provided us with a number of ways to get the learning juices flowing, none of which involve paying money for good grades. And most smart teachers know this, even without scientific proof.

1.   Fine-tune the challenge. We’re most motivated to learn when the task before us is matched to our level of skill: not so easy as to be boring, and not so hard as to be frustrating. Deliberately fashion the learning exercise so that students are working at the very edge of your abilities, and keep upping the difficulty as they improve.

2.  Start with the question, not the answer. Memorizing information is boring. Discovering the solution to a puzzle is invigorating. Present material to be learned not as a fait accompli, but as a live question begging to be explored.

3.   Encourage students to beat their personal best. Some learning tasks, like memorizing the multiplication table or a list of names or facts, are simply not interesting in themselves. Generate motivation by encouraging students to compete against themselves: run through the material once to establish a baseline, then keep track of how much they improve (in speed, in accuracy) each time.

4.   Connect abstract learning to concrete situations. Adopt the case-study method that has proven so effective for business, medical and law school students: apply abstract theories and concepts to a real-world scenario, using these formulations to analyze and make sense of situations involving real people and real stakes.

5.   Make it social. Put together a learning group, or have students find learning partners with whom they can share their moments of discovery and points of confusion. Divide the learning task into parts, and take turns being teacher and pupil. The simple act of explaining what they’re learning out loud will help them understand and remember it better.

6.   Go deep. Almost any subject is interesting once you get inside it. Assign the task of becoming the world’s expert on one small aspect of the material they have to learn—then extend their new expertise outward by exploring how the piece they know so well connects to all the other pieces they need to know about.

For more about the science of learning, go to

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  • Murali

    Your approach towards learning is great Madam, I at the age of 25 always find a new technique in your blog. Great thank you mam.

  • Mark Condon

    In other words, stop doing just about everything that schools do every day and start acting like our kids are our brilliant and delightful treasures. Excellent.

    • Cary Elcome

      Absolutely, Mark! Our “students” are our resource. We need to use their interests and needs as starting points – not some global (or not) textbook produced by a giant publisher in it for the money!
      When i worked as a volunteer teacher in Laos, I chucked out most of the books they had there amd referred to the children. They didn’t give a twopenny cuss about pages filled with blond kids with smartphones, or daddies in suits going to the office. Get down and get dirty!

  • Carol Goldsmith

    Using tip #2 takes longer, but drives the learning deeper. Learners remember and if the focus is on How you got the answer, then you get far reaching transfer.

    • Lavada

      Yes, starting with a question does drive the learning deeper. I would start with a QFocus when I was teaching third grade to get my students’ thinking going. Check out the Right Question’s simply strategy for doing that:

  • Kojack

    I teach Social Studies to ELL students at the middle level – I love the idea of assigning each of my students to become an “expert” on a piece of the material they are learning – I think this would be fun to see them explore their topic and then come together as a learning community to share what they found and share their expertise – and I just know they would make connections with each other’s topics as it relates to the unit we are studying! I am actually going to try this next week!!

  • Cosbey

    It truly is amazing when you begin lessons with a question or scenario for the students to ponder. Asking for rote memorized answers becomes boring and stale. Asking questions to students gives them the ownership to explore their own answers and solutions. It also leads students to developing deeper level questions in response. The class in general becomes more engaged and interactive. In addition, a good question doesn’t lead to one simple multiple choice answer. Instead, students can extract multiple meanings, answers and predictions.

    • Lavada

      Cosbey, that is truly amazing. Consider starting with a question focus. … check out the Right Question Project’s work!

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  • Elligan-Brown

    In my freshman English class, I use collaborative learning groups that have a big question to ponder as we read any text. The students use critical thinking skills as they read a story to find possible outcomes. Since there is no one answer and they are putting in their own observations and opinions based on the facts, it always generates a lively discussion. By using discussion, the students go beyond the surface of the text and generate insightful discussion. A question that I would pose is what does abstract to concrete learning look like without doing a generic assignment? If the teaching skills we want to develop in our students should be authentic and have meaning, what does this theory look like in practice?

  • KSCat10

    As for fine turning the challenge, I completely agree with the objective shared but believe that differentiation must come into play. In teaching in a highly diverse school, I work with a wide range of abilities levels. In some of my classes, I have students identified with learning disabilities as well as students identified as gifted. Therefore, a challenge to some of my students is easy for others within the same classroom. I believe that it takes time to feel out your students and understand their starting point. As the school year, or semester in my case, progresses, the differentiation of difficulty can become more varied.

    Making it social, this is something middle school students are great at, no matter what the topic! :) They love to share their own experiences and communicate with their peers. When we give them a purpose for socializing and assign specific roles to ensure all students stay on topic, students can truly benefit from applying their social skills.

    • EHKim

      Thanks for sharing this. I also think differentiation should play a major role especially when teaching a diverse group of students. I would like to add one more thing to consider for differentiation: culture. I’m teaching college-bound ESL students who are mostly first comers to the U.S. and they are from different cultural backgrounds. When designing a task to motivate my students, what first comes into my mind is if the task has something that recognizes their cultural differences. For example, when I teach modal verbs, to make the task relevant to their cultures, I give them a writing topic such as “Your teacher wants to get married to someone from your country. Make suggestions about the the things she should keep in mind” Then students are told to use modal verbs when they make suggestions. After that they share what they write as a group, which makes the whole class engaged and motivated. This way students can connect their learning to life situations as suggested in #4 and make it social as in #5. As you said, it is important to ensure all students stay on the same topic, but the topic benefit each student in different ways when they apply it to their life and share it with others.

      • Allison Brown

        Differentiation is a huge part of student learning in schools today. It is all about meeting individual needs.

    • deeintx

      KSCat10 I agree that differentiation is important. When I grade, I very often “differentiate” my expectations of student work. After getting to know my students’ strengths and weaknesses, I can then adjust my expectations of each student. For one that is slow to respond, I might not expect the same number of problems or the amount of work. For one that is autistic, I might not expect divergent thinking or surprising analysis. And for one that is reluctant, I might give extra praise or confirmation. I think that as teachers, we have to be the one that levels the field for our students. Things like this, help keep students motivated to keep trying too because they know they are competing against their own best self.

  • Ramas

    Dear KSCat10,
    I agree with you that differentiation must come into play!! people are not the same and they look at things differently. I believe this what makes both teaching and learning interesting.
    I think tip# 3 is a good way of motivation. Maybe a good way to do it is by sharing our stories together. beating the fear that is in us helps in building strong personalty and this helps in students performance.

    I also thinks tip#5 is very effective as I do believe that group work and collaboration is important. this method can break the ice between the classmates, they can all help and learn from each other

  • Anne M. Beninghof

    Thanks for a great list! I would add “choice” as a key ingredient to motivation. If we provide students with choices, they are more likely to follow through. These can be no-prep choices like writing instrument, seating, working alone or with others – or they can be more in-depth like how to show their learning, whether to approach a task from a visual, auditory or kinesthetic/tactile perspective, or even the topic of investigation. Students often feel out of control in their lives. When we give them choices (control) they feel empowered and motivated.

    • shessosquare

      This is a great example of differentiating. I teach art and I love giving choices. There are so many ways to teach (and demonstrate) one concept!

  • Azmi Sherif

    In reality, I appreciate your effort! Simply because motivation is a must in any task-based activity involving a group or class. Any activity mainly relies on its participants.
    They are the effect/result of learning, and in my point of view they are the
    cause/reason for their own success at language learning. Motivation is a
    “causal” relationship where a student’s increased ability, namely effort,
    positively impacts performance, thus yielding better scores and results

  • Larry DeSalvatore

    For those of us thinking about student motivation or wishing to help teachers think more clearly about it, I highly recommend The Motivation Equation by Kathleen Cushman. This short, interactive e-book can be found at Cushman is a clear, engaging writer, and the beauty of her e-book is that it allows us to hear and see students expressing themselves about aspects of motivation. The price is right too. For $1, you can download it to your iPad or computer.

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  • Katie Larson

    Thank you for your list of ways to motivate student learners. I really appreciated your insight. It’s inspired me to look at my teaching methods differently and has sparked new ideas.
    “Fine Tune the Challenge” Of course differentiation is always the way to go. I love the idea behind this. Surely, there is much research as well. Personally, I struggle with finding the time to plan or support all of my students. Second grade is very dependent. Even after explicit teaching of “how to be independent” for certain core subjects, it’s going to take time. Some groups are harder than others.
    “Personal Best” There is no better competition than with yourself! I’ve used graphs in the past to measure fluency that were up kept by students. It proved to be really motivating and students made great gains. I don’t know why I have been limited to only using them for fluency. I could use them for so much more! Thank you!
    “Abstract to Concrete” This way spoke to me the most because of our current math curriculum. It is extremely abstract. I look forward to bringing this idea to our team to better our math lessons and our teachings.
    “Go deep” For so long and so often, I think that things must be done by Friday afternoon. This is a great reminder to not be stuck to that pattern or time limit. I need to let students extend their “new expertise” to other new learnings that need to be taught. If they think it’s their idea, won’t the buy in be greater?!
    Thank you!

  • AMcNamara

    Thank you for sharing the list. My favorite would definitely be #2 because it makes me think of the Socratic method. Teachers sometimes unintentionally allow students to become ‘lazy’ by providing answers or background information. This often happens when teachers don’t think that students are answering questions as quickly as they should. Then also, teachers who are passionate about a certain topic sometimes have the tendency to lecture extensively about it with the hope of inspiring students. Posing a question should encourage students to think and explore, provided that teachers allow students some time to think. For that reason, I think that ‘providing appropriate time’ can also be a way to motivate students to learn. For example, when I consider #1 and #3, I can add the element of time. I teach ESL in higher education and my students are usually asked to observe not just their performance, but also the time it takes for them to perform, i.e. produce the language. Students learn to reflect on these elements and think about what they can do to improve further. They eventually realize how observing both their performance and time motivates them to gain automaticity in language production.

  • Jessica

    This is a fantastic list of motivational strategies that goes beyond the surface. It is obvious that these six ways have been developed from an experienced educator who knows what truly works and does not work with students in the classroom.
    Fine-tune the challenge: We teachers need to always know our students as individuals rather than a whole group. Cater to the needs of each student to achieve their personal potential. If students are not being challenged, they will become bored, lazy, and most likely become a behavioral problem. To avoid this and keep students excited about learning, we must always keep them on their tip-toes!
    Start with the question: As long as we are faced with inquiry, our minds will always be stimulated. It is when we run out of questions our mind stalls and becomes stagnate. One is never unmotivated when are on the hunt for answers.

    Encourage students to beat their personal bests: Our best cheerleader is ourselves! We have the ability to motivate ourselves with setting personal goals. By doing this we reach internal motivation that is driven by personal effort and persistence. I believe this is much more effective than external motivation.
    Connect: All material, abstract or not, should be connected to real-life scenarios. If students are able to relate to material and see it in their own personal lives, their interest and motivation to learn it peaks. Who wants to learn something that does not pertain to them?
    Make it social: Many people shy away from questions or further learning when they believe they are by themselves. In the classroom, students may feel alone with misunderstanding when a dozen other students feel the same. Without discussing it aloud with peers, students will shut down. Communicating with classmates and teachers opens up more discovery and opportunity.
    Go Deep: Education and learning is not surface level. Diving deep into learning is where retention occurs. We are able to find what grasps our attention. The most important questions we can always ask is “Why?”.
    Thank you for sharing these six ways to motivate students!

  • Allison Brown

    I love “Fine Tune,” because that goes hand in hand with differentiation. There are so many individual needs in the classroom, and it is important to meet those needs. For example, your higher level students need higher level work or activities, otherwise they get bored and tend to lose interest. I love number 5. Make it social. That is so true! The kids love when they get to interact with each other and it is also a good way for them to learn from one another and share ideas with another students that shares their same academic needs. This is definitely a motivator! I think number 4. is very important to consider. As teachers, we need to relate our students learning to real life, concrete situations. This gives them the “Why,” for their learning so that they have an idea of what they will use this information for later on in life. It is also a big motivator, and helps them to remember better if they can connect their learning to experience.

  • Amber

    Thank you for sharing this article! Student motivation is something that is of upmost importance in education, but is often times overshadowed, due to people talking about NCLB and lesson differentiation. If students are motivated to learn, they will not learn. Sure, they can memorize some facts, but they won’t make learning their own and lock it away in their minds forever. I agree with Azmi Sherif, that as students’ motivation increases, so will their scores and overall learning. In turn, higher scores lead to higher confidence and more motivation. It’s a beautiful circle!

    Your first point challenging students to really reach to learn is spot-on. In my educational training, we name this as “comprehensible input” and label it as i + 1, where “i” represents the level that a student is currently at and “1” represents one step about that level. I think that this is what we aim for in our lessons, but often find that it is hard to attain given the different language levels, academic levels, and cognitive levels of our students. I agree with Katie Larson (above comment) on this matter: that planning already takes a long time, and differentiation takes even longer. I think that it is a skill that you build up every year. I cannot expect myself to get everything right the first year (or ever!)!

    Your second point highlights something that I hope to do in
    my own classroom someday; that is, project-based learning. Learning through inquiry is something that I see as “new” in the teaching aspect of education, but in my opinion, is the best way to learn. This also ties to your fourth point of connecting learning to real-word stuff. I hope to make my project-based
    learning meaningful to students and help them connect it to their lives!

  • H-Moustafa

    Thanks for
    sharing your six way to motivate students, my favorite one in the list is
    number#2. Starting the lesson with questions is an effective strategy not only
    to stimulate motivation but also to maximize students learning opportunity, promote
    interaction and minimize perceptual mismatch that might take place during the
    learning process. Asking questions makes the classroom event directed toward
    the creation and the utilization of the learning opportunity. When teacher ask
    questions they are not only encouraging the students involvement in their learning
    process but they are also sending an important message to the students telling them
    that your voices are count and we are both joint partner in classroom events
    and in the learning and teaching process. Teachers also should think about the types
    of questions they are going to ask. The effective type of questions is questions
    that permit open ended discussion and new information.

  • Jamie L

    These are all great ideas for motivating students! #4 is an especially good example. Often I deal with abstract concepts in computer science courses and I’ve recently started requiring the students to demonstrate their understanding by relating the concept to something in real life that’s not computer science. It’s challenging for them at first, but they seem to have a better grasp of the concepts after doing that exercise.

  • Lorena Baker

    This is a great list on how to motivate students. #2 Start with the question, not the answer is my favorite. I can see some of my high ability learners jumping at this. Those are the students I have difficulties motivating. I can’t wait to try this. This would work well in cooperative groups too.
    #3 Encourage students to beat their personal best. I can see this applied to reading fluency or multiplication facts. Even in intermediate grades, it is good to set up goals and see the progress.
    #6 Go Deep makes sense to me. So many times we have so much to teach that going deep gets sidetracked a bit. This can be applied to any academic content area. Especially with Common Core standards, this is really what we should be doing.

  • Jennifer Nuss

    When you mentioned fine tune the challenge I was worried
    that you were going to encourage teachers to make sure students weren’t pushed
    too hard. However, it was redeemed by the best quote that students should work
    to the very edge of their abilities. I think students need a range of learning
    opportunities but it is so important that they are challenged and
    stretched. We know our muscles don’t get
    bigger/stronger without stretching and challenging. This is no different for
    our brain. It must be pushed to do even more complicated work.

    The #2/#3 ideas are really motivated and interesting for a
    teacher. One concept that has been going around the internet and Pinterest
    lately is “genius hour”. I absolutely love it. Students are learning what they
    want and discovering answers to questions they pose. It is so high engaging and
    motivated for the students to take learning upon themselves. They have
    personalized the learning and are now going to rise to the challenge of doing
    their best.

    I feel that numbers 4-6 are what the common core is all
    about. Teaching deeper not broader, teaching students those 21st
    century learning skills that they must have to be successful in this world, and
    making sense of their learning. This is what all good teachers should be doing.
    I really feel like it is what the College and Career Ready Standards are asking
    us as teachers to do for our students.

    If we follow these things I think we will also be able to
    differentiate better for our students which is our job as educators. If we can find a way to make all the “pieces”
    fit then we will be effective educators and make a difference for our children.

  • Ms Jonesy is Crazy!

    I really liked your ideas for Motivating Students to Learn. I have to say I read each one about three times and I’m going to make it a point to really try each one within my classroom lessons over the next two weeks. I think that’s a realistic goal and one I can measure as a standard for future classroom expectations, challenges and activities.

    I have to say I really liked this point:
    “1. Fine-tune the challenge. We’re most motivated to learn when the task before us is matched to our level of skill: not so easy as to be boring, and not so hard as to be frustrating. Deliberately fashion the learning exercise so that students are working at the very edge of your abilities, and keep upping the difficulty as they improve.”

    I think the hardest thing as a teacher these days is competing with the host of outside forces beyond our control at any given moment. With behavior issues, students over and under dosed on medicine, home life stresses, students having the inability to really have a true sense of reality vs the gaming world or even something as simple as a fire drill or class picture day… no class day truly ever seems to be the same and no week seems to go by without some sort of distraction or disruption. That being said, I think it’s difficult for teachers to truly invest the time and effort needed to make each activity match the skill level of so many students because a part of us honestly wonders if all the things we plan will actually come to fruition. I think because of this, it’s important to also combine suggestions like #4 where you said to “Make it Social”.

    By doing this in the classroom, it allows those higher level students the chance to think beyond their own understand and rationalize a response to any given question and also gives you another resource to help, motivate and encourage others by employing a “tiny teacher” type activity in the social settings of our classroom.

    I’ve bookmarked your suggestions as well as sent them to my principal for consideration for our next faculty meeting. I like the straight-and-to-the-point step-by-step suggestions and the fact that some were able to be implemented starting 5 minutes ago.

    I look forward to your other postings and thank you for your words of wisdom,
    Ashley Jones

  • Jennifer

    This is a great list of ways to motivate learners! I particularly like the idea of beginning with the question as opposed to the answer. Often we get too focused on the answer that we lose sight of the process–which is where the fun and learning is. I appreciate what was shared about making the memorization of things like multiplication facts into a challenge to make it fun, but I would have to argue that memorization of facts isn’t best practice. Our students need to have strategies in place to figure out those facts and make sense of them. Once those strategies are in place, challenging themselves for fluency and speed would be a fun way to increase those skills. I loved your thoughts on chunking up the task by having students take responsibility for different sections of the task. This reminds me of jigsawing! My kiddos love doing this. It makes for a cooperative learning community! Thank you for some great ideas! Please excuse typos as I am traveling and completing this on my iPhone.

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  • royalsfan2014

    This article offered excellent advice to a first year teacher like myself! I appreciated that it was to the point and all of the suggestions are manageable. My favorite ways to motivate my second graders are #4 and #5. I teach in a low income school and I find that relating abstract concepts to the real world (and making it relevant to why students MUST learn the material to make it in life), can make an enormous difference in their level of interest and engagement. Making learning a social experience almost always benefits all students involved — when there is enough structure in place. Not only does learning socially provide a way for students to learn by listening to peers and explaining their own interpretations but it also provides an opportunity for students to learn communication skills and problem solving skills that are critical in the 21st century. I find #2 (start with the question, not the answer) intriguing. I am constantly working to structure lessons for students so they are able to learn by exploring but it takes quite a bit of practice and thinking aloud at this primary of a level. We are in our second quarter of school and I am just now starting to see students take off and really observe their minds at work while they think creatively and collaborate with their teams to solve problems. Thanks again for the ideas! I hope to incorporate more of them as the year continues.