Six Ways To Motivate Students To Learn

| September 2, 2013 | 21 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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