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 AnnieMurphyPaul.com

Six Ways To Motivate Students To Learn 26 March,2015Annie Murphy Paul

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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: http://hepg.org/hel/article/507

  • 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. http://hepg.org/hel/article/507 … 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!

    • Kirstin

      I totally agree. Giving students who have behavior issues a choice usually allows them to feel more empowered and they will focus on the choices rather than bad behaviors! Motivation and empowerment have been my greatest discoveries this year as a first-year teacher!

    • Leigh Miller

      I agree that “choice” is a great addition to the list. My students are required to read 30 minutes every day. Parents always ask me what they type of book or what do they need to read. I always tell the parents that it is the students choice, as long as they say it is ok. Most of my students will end of reading more because they can choose to read about what is interesting to them.

  • 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 http://howyouthlearn.org. 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!

  • CarolineE

    I can not disagree with any of the suggestions in your post! For the third one, “Encourage student to beat their personal best”, I find that they are only wanting to do better when they have some sort of intrinsic or extrinsic factor motivating them. Perhaps, though, that is only true of the older students. One of the things that I find hardest to do as a teacher is getting students have that intrinsic motivation in their learning.

    Choices and opportunities for leaderships are key, as well. When a student helps to form their own learning experience, he/she seems to take more out of it. As was posted with the fifth suggestion, “Make it social”, it seems that when students become the teacher, they are not only reinforcing what they have learned, but they are motivated to learn more because of the feeling of accomplishment and perhaps power. That is a strong motivator when it comes to kids!

  • 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.

    • Kirstin

      I am a first-year teacher as well! This list was really appreciated. I think #1 is more related to my extremely diverse classroom. Vygotzky’s Zone of Proximal Development really focuses on having students in the right spot to scaffold material. Since my students are all at different levels, this looks different for each student. The differentiation is a key role in my classroom.
      I am glad you help add the social aspect for your second graders. Those communication skills are so vital! I do the same thing with my third-graders. The more they can talk academically, the more they will develop stronger academic thinking.

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  • John Smith

    This doesn’t work. Say what you want. We need REAL motivation people.

  • Melissa

    I found this list interesting. The first point “Fine-tune the challenge” is a great idea. However, is this necessary in every lesson with every task? I currently have 38 students. Some information is concrete and students just “need/have” to know it or they will fall behind the next year. I agree that it is important but maybe not to the extreme. I thought all 6 points were very valid and necessary to try to do as the educator. One point I thought was lacking in this list was the student has to be interested in the material. If it is not interesting it is hard to get motivated to learn it. The list discussed going deep to make it interesting, but as the educator you’re excitement can help students get excited. If you show interest often the younger students will follow your lead.
    I also like Anne Beninghof’s comment about choice. With so much assessment and data collection being required of educators it often is hard to motivate students. There is not a lot of choice in the tests and assessments so giving students simple small choices makes all the difference. As a teacher with minimal years of experience I appreciate this list of ideas.

  • LBaker

    suggestions are wonderful and fully validated by years of research. Vygotsky has helped us to see the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ or a cognitive development/expansion plus the ability to carry out tasks independently, which takes place through scaffolding and/or collaboration (a.k.a. ‘Collaborative Learning’) is effective in the learning process. The evidence provided that a student’s cognitive potential can be expanded more through social interaction (with adults and/or peers), rather than having to study alone can be motivating. Ultimately, I
    firmly believe the learning itself acquired through this process may motivate students to want to learn more. My assertion here is very much related to your ideas of ‘fine tuning the challenge’ and ‘making it social.’ Further, educational researchers and cutting edge thinkers like that of Dewey helped us to realize that if we make the content and theories we are teaching in the classroom real to life and experiential, we are giving our students an ‘educative experience’ which gives rise to true learning. This notion is very much related to your idea of making connections between the ‘abstract learning to the concrete situations.’ When abstract ideas can be applied in motion, that is, when students can link abstract ideas to their own lived experiences and/or experience the abstract idea in a
    living way, then true learning can be attained. Moreover, turning theory into reality is motivational! When we can make our content real to life, students will be motivated to learn. Our experience as teachers affirms this. Also, ‘Starting with the question and not the answer’ reminds me of project-based learning. Implementation of PBL gives students the opportunity to problem-solve together in groups rather than recitation of rote memorization is revolutionary! If students are given the opportunity to solve a problem that is real to life, they really could be motivated to solve it if they can first catch a vision of the value of it. Then, if they can be helped to deduce that finding the solution to that particular problem means making a positive impact on the society/world in which we live, and that they could potentially be the key persons of importance in discovering the solution, I believe they will be motivated to get to work—whoever they are at whatever level. This method encourages research via exploration (unknown) and promotes true learning (known). Finally, your idea to ‘go deeper’ is nothing more or less to me than activating higher order thinking skills. Using Bloom’s Taxonomy for this is handy. I don’t think the application of Bloom’s Taxonomy across the curriculum could ever get old. We can go deeper by going higher! We can go deeper by going Bloom! Go Bloom!

  • Kirstin

    When I read #1, I was worried this would be an article that did not mention scaffolding or Vygotzky’s ZPD. I thought “fine-tuning” was a phrase used to describe everyone at the same level. Thankfully, that was clarified and I was at ease! I love how you mentioned that we should push students just to the edge of their abilities, as Vygotzky’s research shows that is where students have maximum learning.
    For #2, I just started teaching fractions. My students spent the whole time yesterday just playing with the manipulatives. Today, we will make our own so they can attach some meaning to them. They were already discovering so many things and exploring the “similar fractions” and “making a whole.” I think that is so vital to give students the opportunity to explore.
    #3 is big in my classroom because we set goals. I want students to strive to improve themselves, not beat others. They have goals they work to meet each month and we have a one-on-one conference to discuss how it went, what we can improve, what kind of resources they need from me, etc. I check in with students often, reminding them and asking them how they are doing at reaching their goal. I just started it in January and my kids have never been so motivated to strive for a goal than the one they set themselves!
    I can definitely see #4-6 in my classroom because of our emphasis on Common Core. These are all things that are preparing my students for life outside of school and for further learning. I emphasize each day that I am a lifelong learner and they are too! When they can make deep connections and even be able to put that into words, they are only bettering their own thinking. I have observed many people discussing that this is not important, but I can think of a quote that reminds me of the importance of these connections. “Neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurons that fail to link, fail to sync.” These students need to connect these neurons and dendrites so real learning can occur. Our job as teachers is to make this happen by giving them meaningful learning opportunities!

  • akstavro

    Great post! I can appreciate this post and its direct, to-the-point format. Motivating students can be one of the most challenging tasks for teachers to accomplish effectively. This list brings up some great points about doing just that! “Fine tuning the challenge” may be the most difficult of the 6 ideas. Differentiation requires the most care–and trying to do it with 20 very different brains, and 20 different spectrums of needs. It also may be the most critical of the 6. Without fine tuning, students can become turned off by learning. I think if this list’s ideas are implemented, our students will be more prepared for life after K-12 education, whether it be college or the workforce. Goal-setting, social interactions, and real-world applications are going the traits many employers are looking for.

  • Sonya Jolivet

    Here are my thoughts on each of the six ways listed to motivate students to learn:

    1. I totally agree that success is a great motivator. We can only achieve success if the task is within our ability. When we do complete a task that is within our ability, we are rewarded with a feeling of accomplishment and that in turn boosts our confidence.

    2. I like the idea of starting with the question and then exploring the answer. That is a lot like top down learning. We can learn so much than we were expecting when we are given a more broad question.

    3. I think personal goals are great. When you see that you have achieved or exceeded your goal, again this definitely builds our confidence. I personally am a little competitive and I know that I will work extra hard if the end result is something I want.

    4. This sounds like the reverse of the concrete-representational-abstract method. But I can see how this might be beneficial, when you need to know the content before doing the activity. For example: if you were learning to make a stool in a wood working class, you would want to learn how all the tools worked before actually beginning to create the stool.

    5. I think students working together is a good idea in theory. It is hard to put into place effectively. Many kids get off task easily when working in groups, or some of the team members may do more work than others. This is not always a good situation for an extra shy or low student. Groups for these students would need to be well thought out. I think students working together can be successful. It just requires a lot of expectations, roles and procedures to be taught before the students
    actually move to work in those groups.

    6. I think this idea works well for older students. I know I have been to many a class or workshop where the presenter may “jigsaw” out pieces of articles or books for individuals to read and then report what they learned back to another group of people.

  • Curtis Hall

    Wow! This article has some great ideas about motivating students! I read it earlier this week and brainstormed some ideas so I could do a better job of motivating my students to work on memorizing their multiplication facts at home. I am currently doing the traditional charting where kids put an x by their name on the multiple they successfully tested out of. Each multiple they test out of, they get a small prize. At first, this seemed to be motivating kids to put in the grunt work of practicing every night. However, over the past couple months kids have greatly slowed down on testing out. So this week, after reading this article, and in particular, #3, I decided to add some friendly completion to the mix. Kids are now competing with each other with manipulates call Multiplication Wrap ups, where they compete with a partner who is on the same multiple to see who can tie a string around the manipulative the fastest, matching every factor with the correct product. In addition, no prizes from me are apart of this activity. All of a sudden, the amount of kids coming to test out is overwhelming. It’s hard for me to keep up. Thanks for the reminder of the power of friendly competition in this article!

  • Tressa Harper

    I agree with many of the comments discussing the use of choice. Power is an excellent motivator for students, especially when kids feel like they never get enough of it at home or at school. Letting our students choose their learning experiences, what to study next, or how to learn are all ways we can appear to relinquish power to our students when secretly we are getting exactly what we want –engaged students, excited about what they are studying. Dewey states, “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of the desire to go on learning.”

  • Cassandra Obit

    This is a great list of tips of how to motivate students. I’ve
    noticed that differentiating is used a lot in the posts, which is great!
    Matching a child’s skill level and abilities I think is often over looked as a
    motivating tool. We as teachers write a lesson plan but in the end we
    technically write a lesson for each child in our classrooms, by differentiating
    our lesson for each child’s ability. When we encourage students to compete
    against themselves and not their peers it benefits all that are involved; the
    students take charge of their learning. One of the people mentioned allowing
    students to have choices when it comes to their education that I believe to be
    the best form of motivation. When students are making choices and feeling like
    they are involved they are more eager to learn. The author mentioned “almost
    any subject is interesting once you get inside it,” this applies for adults,
    child, everyone. The more you know about something the interested you are in it
    no matter the topic.

  • John Tompkins

    Good article to “Mindshift” for organizing some ideas to think about and have shared with my peers. 1. What is student prior knowledge? How to scaffold knowledge? How to check their ZPD? “Vygotzky” somehow every day every student – the ultimate goal. 2. Yes, all about a student centered, active learning, guided inquiry classroom. One classroom strategy, think Jeopardy – where “really smart” people compete. Start with the answer; what is the question? 3. Yes: “All I can do is be me, whoever that is?, Bob Dylan……”Do your work and then some”… as a strategy; or in the work place, “Give them more than what they are paying you.” 4. Reflect every day: Why do they need to know this? Abstract modeling to reality….science teachers might consider integrating engineer practices (NGSS) into their lessons…take the abstract models and apply them to reality…. ie. Chemistry: How does a Lithium Ion battery do work? How does an LED do work?…electrons jumping…..design 2D to 3D build models for testing……and to contrast; Choices for presenting content: Study an ice cube floating in a glass of water on the moon…..versus the earth…OR study the Titanic (History): What is buoyancy? 5. Make it social – yes; another word – collaborative; best strategy for analytical studies – finding people that want to get it. Where really smart people hang out? coffee shops environment with music; where work and play are not opposites. Suggestion: If Physics lab; Coldplay “Clocks”; “Speed of sound”…..work really well on lab connections. A question at the end of the week: Are the students struggling and are they enjoying the struggle? Got to get a YES for both …a good week. 6. Go deep: The real world does not do scantrons (Nor does an undergrad engineering curriculum)….More writing, more drawing, more show your analytical work in the sciences for assessments… yes, it is harder to grade; but only true way to check understanding in depth. More emphasis on labs as part of assessments for experiential learning…..if science is a way of knowing through observation….consider elevating the lab to the same level as unit tests.

  • Jennifer Brown

    I cannot say I ever considered theoretical perspectives on motivation while working on my weekly lesson plans. My initial reaction to the brief article was underwhelming; this is just a list of what good teachers do! The author even states, “…most smart teachers know this, even without scientific proof.”

    There is definite value in understanding the why of motivation. Murphy Paul’s suggestions are broad, general in nature, and written in a reader-friendly language. If we translated into teacher-speak, she is basically saying to consider instructional level, interest, and differentiate; employ higher order thinking questions; encourage intrinsic motivation; make it real-world, and use cooperative learning.

    So maybe I wasn’t intentionally considering the why of motivation, but it was happening.

    While exploring the author’s blog (www.anniemurphypaul.com) and reading other studies, which she cites, I encounter greater depth, insights and explanations. These offer further detail that can truly enlighten the process, therefore affecting the methods as they are put into practice.

    Murphy Paul (2015) discusses a particular phenomena called “the protege effect,” which boils down to the fact that when we teach, we learn. This idea, married with the suggestion of asking questions, not giving the answers, created a very successful learning experience in my classroom of first graders. After shared and partner reading of a particular story, students worked in pairs then in small groups to write questions from the book for a game show activity. Each student came up with two of their own, worked with a partner to edit and revise both the questions and answers, then finally as a small group to provide four questions and answers for our game. Students were highly motivated, deeply engaged, and met their comprehension goals for that particular story.

    Overall, I believe the why is important and not just for a deeper level of understanding. As I consider the dynamics of a particular class and the individuals within, I can lean towards methods that will be more likely to engage/motivate the class.

  • Jennifer Boss

    I absolutely love the idea of having the students become little experts. I teach kindergarten, and they are always wanting to be the teacher, or get up at the front and share their work. This would be so motivating to so many of them. I also try to quite regularly incorporate the idea of having students as teachers when it comes to explaining how to do something, or what the work for today is going to be. Students love to tell their friends what we are doing or even how to complete the task that I am asking of them.

  • Eljeffe05

    You’re saying we shouldn’t pay our
    learners for learning? They why will
    they do it!? Relax, I’m kidding!

    Point one reminds me of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, we need to hit the
    sweet-spot of “instructional” material.

    Starting with questions instead of
    supplying the answers encourages thinking; isn’t that what we want our learners
    to do?

    I love the point about encouraging
    our kids to beat their best, and not
    trying to compete with their neighbor.
    That reminds me of a quote, “The race is long, and in the end, it’s only
    with yourself.”

    Keeping our instruction based in
    the real world adds relevance. Learning
    in a group setting teaches so much more than just a subject material.

    As for depth, when our kids are
    engaged, they typically want to dig for answers and thinking well beneath the

  • Chris_S

    Teach just above the students’ skill level so it’s challenging but not too difficult, use discovery learning, challenge yourself to improve on your past record, use authentic learning, collaborate, and become an expert and teach what you know. The instructional strategies outlined here can be effective, but maybe not all of them for every student. That is one reason it’s important to use multiple teaching strategies; the more you differentiate strategies, the more students you reach, and the result is more student success.

    I like that this is based on science and data. It’s not only important to know how to motivate students, but also why we motivate students.

    For the most part I like this list. Even the strategies that aren’t my favorite might be worth a try, because they may help a student whose background and needs are different from mine.

  • Joy

    -Keep students on the edge of their seats! (So to speak).
    Challenging students intellectually yet keeping success within reach is a
    great source of motivation.
    -Sometimes starting with the answer may actually motivate
    students to learn…..ie: Science, Social Studies……How did we get to this
    result? One might use research, group projects and presentations.
    (Social Activities and Depth)
    -Encouraging students to beat their personal best may be a
    double-edged sword. While some may be excited by their obvious progress
    others may feel defeated by their lack of achievement. Teachers that
    recognize and individualize (keeping success within reach) will certainly see
    better results.
    -Hands on Learning……..learn it and apply it. Move it from
    the abstract to the concrete. Doesn’t get much better than that to keep
    learners motivated!
    -Social/Group learning need to be carefully designed.
    There are those students that simply take no pleasure in working with
    others on projects/assignments and would find the prospect of social activities
    to be a potentially bad experience and not at all motivational. However, there are those that would thrive at
    the opportunity to participate in such activities.
    -Students allowed and encouraged to explore subject matter that
    interests and excites them are certainly going to be motivated to learn….this
    may even lead them to be more willing to share in the experience (Social Activities).

  • Kim McWilly

    This was a great article. Many of these motivation strategies align with principles I utilize in my own classroom. The second motivation: “Start with the question not the answer” was my favorite. For me this speaks to the inquiry learning style which I’m trying to implement more and more into my own teaching style. Students retain information longer and have a greater depth of knowledge when they “discover” the knowledge themselves. Teachers are no longer the center of the classroom but more the “guide on the side”.

    My other favorite was number four, connecting abstract ideas to real life scenarios. Students always ask “Why do I need to learn this?”. When I can make a connection to the real world students don’t be grudge my class and are eager to learn. If students make a personal connection with the content not only will it seem more approachable but it will have a greater lasting impact.

    Great reminders for teachers!

  • Leigh Miller

    The six ways to motivate students to learn is a great starting place. As teachers we all probably have additional tricks and tips that we use to motivate and to keep students motivated. As already mention in the comments is choice and differentiation, also helps with motivation. As teachers, we know that there is not a one trick that works for all students. Having a list of researched based motivational strategies helps veterans teachers stay refreshed in their practice and new teachers a place to start. My favorite on the list is to start with a question. It can be amazing sometimes with what students come up with when you give them a chance to explore a topic through asking then a questions instead of just giving them information.

  • Sonia


    I would like to start by mentioning that I liked the easy read this article was. I also like the fact that the ideas given are actually realistic and relatively easy to put into practice. I teach an ESL class with very limited English and low academic education from their home country. Motivations is something that goes right out window, but like two ideas from this article that I could try with my kids and just maybe I can install the curiosity to learn!

    1. (4) Connect abstract learning to concrete situations;
    I am trying to teach my kids to transfer a skill learned and use it to a new situation. I try to make my language/grammar/vocabulary teaching relevant to their near future. For example filling out an application, bank accounts, and getting ready for an interview. I wish this was not a reality but most of my students are just waiting to be of age to get a job. I guess I can try to teach them as many life skills as I can while they are with me.

    2. (5) Make it social
    Coming back to my low ESL kids, they may not know English but they can sure navigate through social media!!! In our school district all our kids have Ipads and they are able to have them all day and even take them home. There are several programs that allow the integrative participation from students like Socrative and Quizlet. To be honest they are showing me how to use them! The point here is that if make it digital than they want to do it!

  • Sarah Rhodes

    This list was phenomenal! I especially liked number 2 on your list, “start with a question”. I recently read an article on the interactive lecture. The author suggests teachers form questions at the beginning of the lecture in such a way that it elicits a higher-reasoning response from students and gets them thinking about the topic. This is turn motivates students to pay attention and search for answers on their own. This kind of goes along with your number 6 on the list, “go deep”. I think it is all about presentation and hooking students. If the teacher makes it interesting by providing a deeper understanding of the topic at hand, the student will be more engaged and ready to challenge their own beliefs regarding the information being presented. This was a great list!

    Sarah R.

  • test student


  • In the words of Peter Ackroyd English biographer regarding Isaac Newton: “In one person, he combined the experimenter, the theorist, the mechanic and, not least, the artist in exposition.” ….how to think science. How do students get to utilize their diverse talents through the “Three primary colors” of learning….Art, Math, Literacy. Example: The laws of Physics include vocabulary that is “Invisible”…such as “Mass” (Not weight) ….so to take one word and be able to define it by words, a drawing, algebraic formula, and reconcile the unit of measure is critical for making future connections for critical thinking. Think about the letter “m” and how it shows up in their minds? Is it an algebraic variable “mass”? A prefix “milli”? A unit of measure “meter”?….or the math class earlier in the day…”Slope of a line”?….or something else? And then the word “Weight” a Force due to gravity “Fg” in Newtons “N”…..that is a negative number? Why “F” rather than “W”? Even though from the time they were born….the bathroom scales read a positive number in pounds…”P”…no that is Pressure… a Force applied to an Area A….in “m” squared….? With this challenge, assessments need to have students draw more (Art) for understanding the sciences….just as Newton…the artist… did.(Note: IPad with Adobe Draw…to the big screen…for the Art experience).

  • All the 6 ways are quite good to motivate students to learn. But what if a student complete his task and get reward to complete it; isn’t it the best idea? Yes, it is and currently ongoing in Australia. Studybooster.com – set goals, achieve and earn.

  • Rafael

    Good article. But the main motivation is the desire to learn a new subject or to acquire new skills. Also, you should be really interested in learning this subject. I always liked writing essays. Because I could display my ideas on a paper. In order to write essays faster, I began to study additional materials. For example sites – https://www.oxford-royale.co.uk/articles/writing-essay-hurry.html, https://paper4college.com/homework-help-online. As a result, I managed to master a professional skill in writing essays. This method can be used for other subjects. But the main thing is a strong desire to know something!

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