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Motivation Matters: Six Simple Ways to Engage Students

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article contributed by Aimee Hosler. Passionate about education, Hosler is a writer for and mother of two.

When it comes to student success, motivation often trumps smarts. According to a 2012 study published in the journal Child Development, motivation and effective study skills, compared to sheer intelligence, contributed more to math students’ learning gains.

That’s why we should be concerned about research suggesting that American students are chronically disengaged. (See a series of papers published this year by Georgetown's Center on Education Policy.) Ultimately, all the standards, instruction and curriculum improvements in the world are unlikely to take root until educators can figure out how to better reach students.

Savvy teachers use a variety of strategies to boost student motivation. Here are some tried-and-true ones:

  1. Clarify your expectations (often).  Students are unlikely to succeed if they do not know what is expected of them. At the beginning of each term and before each new lesson, lay out your expectations in an age-appropriate way and review them often. For older kids, consider handing out a written syllabus that includes upcoming themes, important classroom rules, and any other pertinent information, like assignment and test formats.
  2. Allow for mistakes.  Students are more likely to take positive risks if they know they have a little breathing room. In practical terms, that means creating an open classroom environment that allows for some trial and error. Project-based learning practitioners really embrace this approach, but most teachers can find ways to open their classrooms without overhauling their pedagogies.
  3. Give specific, positive feedback (and fewer empty compliments).  Offer positive feedback early and often, but remember to be specific and praise effort, not innate characteristics. According to the book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, research suggests that students who are regularly told they are smart may lower their effort, because they believe success is due to factors outside their control. For instance, it might be better for a music teacher to say, "I can really tell you've been practicing your scales," instead of, "Wow! You are such a natural."
  4. Keep it real.  Let's face it: Even the most successful students are rarely interested in every subject or lesson. Students often internalize lessons more effectively when they can envision some practical value. Whenever possible, frame lessons in terms of real-world applications. It may also help to touch upon some key trend that is important to your students' generation. Rather than giving a dry class presentation, some students may be more inspired to create a how-to Vine video.
  5. Break the cycle.  How often do kids do the same thing day in and day out, with little variation? This is particularly true in classrooms that emphasize rote memorization and traditional assignments and tests. With small children (and even some bigger kids), interjecting a fun game into a lesson can offer a much-needed energy outlet and mental break. You could also try taking lessons outdoors, ditching desks for floor cushions or presenting more creative projects.
  6. Mix your media.  No two students learn the same way, so by presenting lessons in a way that appeals to multiple learning styles, you are more likely to hold their attention. Whenever possible, consider integrating new educational technologies and hands-on manipulatives. Because some students learn best kinesthetically, making lessons physical—say, reciting spelling words while bouncing on a yoga ball—can help tremendously.

Motivation matters for teachers, too

Students often feed off the enthusiasm—or disengagement—of their teachers. Every teacher has off days, but if you find yourself frequently bored and uninspired, your students will follow suit. Ongoing professional development can go a long way toward reviving enthusiasm. Research new instructional strategies, or join organizations or social networks that allow you to share with and learn from other teachers. Remember that any step you take to motivate yourself will be a priceless investment in your students.

Related resources

Project-Based Learning: Free Web-Based Tools
Site Review: PBL for the 21st Century
Project-Based vs. Problem-Based Learning


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