10 Easy Ways to Motivate Your Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

Student happiness and motivation are so vitally important that without them, kids simply won’t want to learn.

If kids don’t want to learn, then they won’t learn. It’s that simple.

I remember reaching a point in my ‘A’ – Level studies at 17-years-old when I just didn’t perform well in Chemistry class. I was convinced that the teacher didn’t ‘like’ me, and her brutal critiques (like the time when I broke a beaker by heating it up directly with a Bunsen Burner), were enough to make me feel dejected and disinterested. 

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“Are you thick?” she said, as the glass bottom of the beaker smashed.

Now I can respond: “No, you were the thick one. You didn’t demonstrate the method before we all got to work on the practical. You just gave us the sheet and told us to get on with it, whilst you did some marking or something. We also didn’t receive enough practical training in high school in general. You’re lucky that nobody got hurt, because then you would have been in serious trouble.”

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“An AMAZING book!”

Phew. That’s given me some closure after all these years. I can say those words with conviction today: I’m a chemistry teacher. 

Keeping students motivated and ‘on your side’ is a multi-faceted, complex and full-time job in itself. However, it’s a lot of fun and it pays a lot of dividends: students get better grades and are better prepared for life at the end of their time at school. 

I’ve made a video on the subject matter here:

This article plus the above video compliment each other well and will provide you with an array of powerful techniques to keep your students’ focus, well: focused!

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Don’t let your students hold grudges against you for years because of silly little behavioral mistakes on your part. Let’s learn how to keep our students determined, focused and motivated!

Tip #1: Greet your students, and greet them with sincerity

Our students are human and, as humans, they require emotional connections in order to feel that they ‘matter’; in order to feel that they ‘belong’ to something.

The simple technique of just saying ‘Hello’, ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’ to students who we see at school can absolutely work wonders for their motivation. When we’re on duty, as we’re walking around corridors or even on our way out of the building at the end of a school day: a quick conversation with a student can really show that we genuinely care about them.

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And that’s really what student motivation all boils down to: showing kids that we really, truly care about them. When students know that someone in this world cares about them, they feel empowered and validated. We can then use that self-empowerment to get our students to push themselves onwards and upwards to better and greater things. 

Tip #2: Notice sadness, sickness or ‘out of character’ behaviour

When you’ve known your students for a short while, it becomes easy to notice a sad face or quiet disposition when normally there would happiness and light.

In these situations, walk over to the student or ask them to stay behind for a minute or so. Ask the student: 

“Is everything okay?”

“I notice you’re a little sad today, is there anything I can help with?”

Reassure your students that you’re here for them and that they can talk to you if they ever feel the need to do so.

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Our kids bring all kinds of emotional baggage to school to with them. A sullen or grim-looking face could have been caused by any one of a myriad of different things: a conflict at home, an argument with a friend at school, a detention from another teacher or even a remark that was taken the wrong way.

Sometimes all our kids need is a good listener to offload their problems to. That can be the conversation that literally turns a child from depressed and stressed to empowered and happy.

Don’t forget to refer students to a school counselor to take it to the next level if the student reveals that something serious is causing the sadness that he or she is facing. Never guarantee confidentiality – always make students aware that if you feel that they need extra help, then you may have to talk with a senior teacher or someone else in the school community.

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Don’t ignore sickness too, and wish for your students to ‘get well soon’. Ask about sports injuries if you notice any – a quick conversation can reveal information about a student that you never knew before and can help you to build up a good professional relationship. 

Tip #3: Use professional intelligence

It is possible for a teacher to motivate his or her students so much that they are constantly driven to succeed. This is a life-changing process.

We can only do this, however, if we get to know our students really, really, really well!

I’ve written about Professional Intelligence a lot in the past, so hopefully you’ve already got your notebook set up! ;-D

Marking work

To cut the explanation short: you should get a notebook and keep all non-confidential information about each student you teach in there. Write down their dreams, aspirations, hobbies, ECAs, talents and significant events that have occurred, or that are coming up in their lives.

The short conversations I mentioned earlier can provide you with lots and lots of useful professional intelligence.

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This information can then be used to generate good professional rapport – the key cornerstone of all great teaching. Kids always learn most effectively when they like and respect their teachers. There’s only one way to get your kids to like and respect you – build up a good rapport with them.

Use your professional intelligence to:

  • Strike up conversations with your new students during lessons when activities are happening or even at impromptu times such as when you’re on duty or walking around school. This will show that you’re interested in their wellbeing and that you remember what they’ve said. Kids and young adults love being listened to and, deep-down, they all want to recognised and admired for their skills and abilities. 
  • Inform your lesson planning by dividing the class into skills groups for activities, or even link the hobbies and interests of your kids to the content. 
  • Speak with students when they slip up or fall behind. I remember once having a one-to-one conversation with a 17 yr old boy who wanted to be a restaurant manager one day. His attitude and focus had been slipping in class, so I had a one-to-one chat with him. I reminded him of the dream and goal he once told me – that he wanted to be a restaurant manager. The effect was profound and deep, and he quickly put himself back on track. 

Tip #4: Give regular, positive, genuine feedback

Praise is one of the most powerful motivational techniques out there, but only if it’s implemented properly.

Here are the ‘Four Rules of Praise’ that every teacher needs to know:

Rule #1: Praise must be sincere

If you don’t mean it, then don’t say it. Kids are not easily tricked. Praise is only ever effective when the teacher saying the nice words of encouragement truly means it.

Rule #2: Praise must be specific

Does the student know exactly why they’ve done a great job? Does the student know what they did well?

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Be specific. Here are some examples:

“Well done, John, for drawing your diagrams with a ruler. They look really neat and tidy, and I can tell that you’ve put time and effort into this work. I am very pleased. Keep it up”

“I’m so pleased with the excellent progress you have made this term, Rosie! Just look at these results: You’ve gone from a level 5 in test 1, then to a level 6 and now you’re working at a level 7. That’s very impressive, Thank you for your hard work and commitment”

Rule #3: Praise must be recorded and remembered by the teacher

Try keeping a professional intelligence journal.

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I’ve written about the power of this technique before, but I’ll go through the process again for clarity.

Basically, at the start of every academic year you should purchase a new notebook. Make sure there are enough pages in it for every student. Every student gets a page.

On each page write down and record any significant interactions with the student. Record their birthdays, hobbies they have, times when they were praised, significant achievements in extra-curricular activities, etc.

Once this information has been recorded, it can be effectively reinforced (please see my post on ‘subtle reinforcement‘ for more info about this powerful technique).

Rule #4: Reinforce the praise at significant points in the future

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Praise must be collective if it is to be truly effective. When a student does a great piece of work, tell your colleagues and your line manager. Ask them to reinforce your praise by giving their own praise to the student.

Reinforcement should also be self-driven – remind your students of previous achievements in order to empower their momentum.

“I remember the excellent Chemistry student who built the atomic structure model in Term 1. She said ‘I’ll find a way to suspend the protons in the middle’. Jessica, you’ve already shown me what a hard-working, committed student you are. This is your moment to shine once again. Put your best effort into this, I believe in you. I know you can do this!”

#5: Recognize wider achievements

Our students are engaged in a wide-range of activities that generally go beyond the scope of what we teach them in class.

We must learn to recognize the achievements of every student, whatever the achievement may be (yet another reason to gather Professional Intelligence). 

I recently had a conversation with one of my students on the corridor one break-time. I don’t actually teach her, but I learned that she had recently been accepted onto a national symphony orchestra because her musical talent was so high.

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I congratulated her on the corridor and the effect on her disposition was amazing. She was thrilled that news of her achievement was widely known in the school community, and she talked to me about her future plans to make a career out of her musical composition and performance.

I told her to “Go for it, all the way”.

That conversation may have acted as one more beacon of guiding light, urging her on to reach her goals and achieve her dreams. 

That’s inspirational. 

Tip #6: Monitor, track and recognise progress

We all need to know where our students are at, and where they are going. 

I personally keep a spreadsheet of all of my kids’ grades on end-of-unit tests. I use this spreadsheet to take action in the following ways:

  • Notice any drop in performance at the earliest instance and intervene with one-to-one conversations. This tells the students that I’m ‘on their case’ and that I simply will not allow or accept negative performance (i.e. going down in grades).
  • Praise and make a fuss out of achievements, such as when students go up a grade in subsequent tests

Most teachers collect data, but few teachers positively act on that data. When we are mindful of which students are rising and which students are falling, we can intervene quickly and literally change their lives. 

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I’ve seen many students over the years come into IBDP Chemistry having never learnt chemistry before, and then coming out with level 7s (the highest level possible) in end-of-unit tests. I had one student last year who came into IGCSE Chemistry year two having never learnt any chemistry before. After one year of my help, using the techniques I’ve mentioned today (and especially this idea of using data intelligence), she pushed herself to achieve a grade A*: a truly phenomenal achievement by any pedagogical measure. 

It’s not a miracle when something like this happens – it’s been carefully engineered and crafted by a teacher who knows their students and who is relentless in taking massive action on a daily basis. 

Tip #7: Talk with parents

Parents can be great allies in our fight to keep students motivated and driven, but only if we communicate with them on a regular basis.

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I’ve written a separate blog post about working with parents here and I would strongly encourage you to read it if you feel that this is an area in which you could develop further.

Tip #8: Praise must be collective in order to be effective

I’ve kind of covered this already, but I’m repeating it in order to stress its importance.

Most teachers are good are dishing out praise.

Some teachers are good at dishing out genuine, meaningful praise that actually has a positive psychological effect on the student.

Very few teachers are good at sharing meaningful praise with colleagues so that those colleagues can also praise the student and reinforce the empowerment you’ve created.

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Be mindful of the power of the collective – when a number of different voices are providing positive, meaningful and sincere praise for the same action or achievement, then that turns student self-motivation into drive: a life-changing personality trait. 

Tip #9: Use points and rewards

These work with kids at any age. 

If your school doesn’t have a points or rewards system in place, then you can invent your own or even use an online system such as Class Dojo (highly recommended)

Tip #10: Love what you teach

I hope this is an obvious one.

If me and you walk into work sad, tired or fed-up, then you can guarantee that our students will pick-up on that (and emulate it).

Whatever issues we have going on in our lives, our students deserve our highest level of passion and energy, even if we’ve got to fake it on certain days.

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Building up subject-knowledge can be a great way to become more passionate about the content we are teaching, along with learning new techniques and skills.

I hope you can see my level of enjoyment in this short clip of me teaching my students in China:

Energy is infectious, so make sure you have lots of it!

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Thank you to all of my regular readers and followers for your kind and continuing support – I love you all!

Richard

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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