Motivating Today’s Students (Pt. 2)

In the first part of this series, I discussed the unmotivated student.  I suggested that while many people are quick to place blame on why the student is unmotivated, a more effective use of time would be to try to resolve the issue.  I referenced a speaker and trainer named Jim Wright, M.S., who created a list of six reasons why today’s students lack motivation.  Then, I explain each of Mr. Wright’s points in detail, which I hope provided some insight into why your students may not be performing as expected.

In part two, I will once again reference Jim Wright.  This time, I will use his points to explore specific ways to motivate students.


1.  “The student is unmotivated because he or she cannot do the assigned work.”


If a student is incapable of doing the assigned work, it is clear that the student needs more help.  Take the student aside and ask where he or she is finding difficulty.  While some students may not know the answer, older students may understand that they need assistance in certain areas.  For example, if your student is struggling in multiplication, sit down with your student and have him or her walk you through a problem.  If your student freezes with double-digit numbers, backtrack to simple problems.  With a few minutes of one-on-one instruction, your student may show great results.  It may be difficult to find the time, but make an effort.  Even just five minutes a day could be beneficial.


2.  “The student is unmotivated because the ‘response effort’ needed to complete the assigned work seems too great.”


This problem may not just be with one student.  This could be a collective issue with the class.  Create a very simple quiz with questions about the topic.  The next time your class gets together, present them with the quiz and explain it is purely for research and there is no grade involved.  (If it relates to the assignment, you could even allow it to be open book.)  Give them five minutes to complete the quiz and once it is over, have the students discuss the questions.  Did they feel that the material was too easy or too difficult?  Why?  If the consensus is that it was too difficult, discuss why.  Maybe due to time constraints, there was not enough time to fully go over the material and the class should backtrack.

Another option is to break down the material into simpler pieces.  Perhaps the material only looks intimidating because of how it is being presented.  If you tell students to complete a thorough research essay, it might be overwhelming.  Have the class brainstorm a list of questions that they can use to do their research.  Once they have answered their questions, ask them to format the answers into an essay.  By creating more runs on the ladder, it is easier to reach the top.


3.  “The student is unmotivated because classroom instruction does not engage.”


Students may not be motivated because they do not find the material to be interesting.  Find creative ways to make the material more enjoyable.  Rather than assigning just a simple book report, let the students suggest other ways to present the material.  Try a class news show where the student newscasters review the books on the air.  Let students stage and film a video review of the book – they could even create a trailer.  Turn the classroom into a talk show and have students pretend to be characters in the book (or the author) and respond to questions from the host and studio audience.  With a little creativity, a simple project could be highly engaging.  Give your students some freedom and empowerment to make the work something they will be proud of.


4.  “The student is unmotivated because he or she fails to see an adequate pay-off to doing the assigned work.”


Some students may zone out of the class if they feel that the material does not have practical value in real life.  A high school math teacher could bring in examples of how functions are used in real life.  (For example, trigonometry can help an interior designer determine angles for hanging lights and decorative pieces.)  Ask your student what they want to pursue in life and have the student help you discover how the subject will help them.  This could even be a fun extra credit question on tests: “Write down a way you could apply one of these skills in real life.”


5.  “The student is unmotivated because of low self-efficacy—lack of confidence that he or she can do the assigned work.”


If a student is not confident in his or her own work, the teacher and the student’s family should work together.  A child who is struggling with learning to read may respond well to praise.  While the concept of reading a big chapter book might be daunting, celebrating small successes may prove successful.  For example, try copying one story out of a “Frog and Toad” compilation book.  Present it to the student as an individual story, rather than a large book.  With each success, mark the story and continue until you have completed the book.  When you present the compilation book, your student will be amazed at his or her progress.  The book will appear easier because it was presented in parts.


 6.  “The student is unmotivated because he or she lacks a positive relationship with the teacher.”


If the student is not engaged with the teacher, this could be due to a number of things.  For example, rumors from past classmates may have made the student nervous.  Or perhaps the class is presented in a lecture format and the student is uncomfortable.  If you are brave enough, consider creating a report card for yourself and giving it to your students.  Set aside class time for a “question and answer session” and have the students ask you questions about the class itself.  Make an effort to get to know your students and tell them more about you.  Do not be afraid to own up to your mistakes and make the environment warm and welcoming.



In short, every student and every situation is unique and completely different.  A good teacher is also a scientist and knows that through routine experiments, successes can be found.  Perseverance and optimism are the keys.


What strategies have you tried to motivate students?  Where have you found success?  Share your stories in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog so you can see others’ responses.




Wright, Jim. “Strategies for Motivating the Struggling Student in Grades 3-12.” Technical Assistance Meeting for Committee on Special Education Chairpersons. Crowne Plaza Hotel, Lake Placid. Intervention Central. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

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Dave Hoffman