Motivation, no easy answers.

How to motivate all your students all the time

It is the time of the year again. Students have completed an evaluation of their classes and teachers and we are discussing the results in our spring developing performance meeting. Two areas seem to reoccur. Self-assessment and motivation. This time I would like to focus on the latter. I visit all my teachers’ classes, preferably before we have our conversation and I am as usual very impressed with our teachers and the way they present the material to the students. They offer insight into why this particular topic is important, they relate it to what the students have already learned and what they are already interested in, just like the illustration from Daniel Pink on the right here. What strikes me is the way some students are so easily distracted by their phones and computers, quickly switching between class-related tasks and Instagram, newspapers, Facebook and even computer games. When discussing this with the teachers after the observation, they tell me they are aware of some of what I observed, and that they spend a lot of time correcting students’ behavior. Many of the students who multitask are bright students and they do well on their tests. That makes me wonder if we should:

Ask the students to close their computers during lectures (usually only 10-15 minutes), if lectures should be voluntary since many seem to be able to figure it out anyway, or if the class should be organized differently alltogehter.

When we have conversations with our students on what motivates them, grades are always the first answer. And that is understandable because many of our students, perhaps most of them are aiming for prestigious universities. But when it comes to really learning the material, this is not the motivation we are looking for. Like Daniel Pink says here:

What’s more, this carrot-and-stick approach confuses two types of goals. Research by Carol Dweck and others has shown that there’s a difference between learning goals and performance goals. A learning goal is, “I want to master algebra.” A performance goal is, “I want to get an A in algebra.” The research shows that reaching performance goals doesn’t necessarily mean that you have hit a learning goal. If people are single-mindedly focused on performance goals—and they achieve them—it doesn’t mean they’ve learned anything, improved their capabilities, or mastered something complex. The kid is less likely to retain what she learned to get the A, less likely to persist when the going gets tough, and less likely to understand why algebra is important in the first place.

However, if a kid is single-mindedly focused on a learning goal—mastering algebra—chances are he’s going to do pretty well. In the process, he’ll probably attain that performance goal and get his A. So it’s best to simply go for the learning goal and use the grades and scores as feedback as the student works toward mastery.

If you truly want to engage kids, you have to pull back on control and create the conditions in which they can tap their own inner motivations.

As the title of this blog post suggests. There are no easy answers here. Not at all. And I would quickly like to point out that I am not criticizing any of the teachers at my school, far from it, I am really impressed by what they do in class, every day. I am just wondering what we can do to get our students more motivated, more on task and perform better. To add to the conversation I have included two videos with Daniel Pink, I also recommend reading his book Drive. And to end this post, some other points on what you can do to create a more active student-driven classroom.  Like the quote above, how to create conditions where students flip their own switches. Because that is what we are looking for; right?

Active Learning Classrooms

More recent studies underscore that teaching methods (active learning) and analog features (flexible seating and whiteboards) have a far greater effect on student motivation, learning outcomes, and collaboration than digital and high tech features. See the article here.



  1. Thank you for this insightful post. I feel as though this is one of the never ending questions within education: how can I motivate an entire class of diverse learners at the same time? I agree with your advice on creating an active learning experience. It is my belief traditional methods are grade-oriented as their “ultimate goal,” which as you said, does not meet the true demands of learning. I found it interesting how recent studies point to teaching methods and analog features to effect student motivation more than digital and high tech features. I will surely look into the article you mentioned further. Thank you again!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Digital can never be the sole motivator. Perhaps at the beginning that was believed to be true. Deep learning and meaningful tasks are the way to go, still difficult.

  2. I agree with all of this. In high school, I remember everyone focusing on an A and passing, while I was just trying to understand what was in front of me. I may not have gotten all A’s the first two years of high school trying to understand it, but I know for sure I learned. Now some of my peers that focused on A’s mention they don’t remember anything they learned in those for years and if it ever came up, they’d be in trouble. I think it will be hard to get students away from this mindset that they need A’s for the sole purpose of getting in to prestigious colleges and universities, but I do believe it can be done. In the end that kind of motivation to achieve learning goals needs to come from the student, and teachers have to find a way to bring it out of them.

  3. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post! Motivation is a huge part of success for students. Each student needs to be inspired and motivated to be successful in school. There are no easy answers like you said, but there are many things to try as an educator.

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