How to motivate your students

Dan Belenky

We know that motivation is an important tool in helping students to achieve more. When combined with other self-management abilities (like planning and organising work), motivation is a bigger predictor of grades than IQ. So how can we encourage this in our students?

Learner doing homework at home

Frequently, people think of motivation as something either present or absent. “Jo is a motivated student, but Ali isn’t.” However, academic research on motivation has revealed that a more productive question to focus on is, “What factors are motivating this person’s behaviors right now?” With this lens, we don’t focus as much on whether or not a person is motivated, we focus on whether the motivation a person is experiencing is appropriate for goals they are pursuing, and the environment.

As learning is increasingly happening in online environments, independently driven, and over the course of the lifetime, this kind of lens becomes even more critical. As we move from thinking of motivation as “the fuel” of behavior to considering it as a tool to effectively “steer and accelerate” towards your goals, this guide will give you ideas on how to better support different aspects of motivation to lead to improved learning outcomes.

A growth mindset will help students if they hit a bump in the road.

We all hit bumps in the road—it’s inevitable. But what happens next? Some people may feel demotivated, taking the difficulties as a sign that they don’t have what it takes to succeed. Others may see these difficulties as important parts of the journey—they feel driven to overcome these challenges, as a way to improve and develop one’s abilities and skills.

Academic research has explored these two different perspectives people may hold, labeling the idea that you have a set amount of ability which can’t be increased a fixed mindset and the belief that your abilities can develop as a growth mindset. For example, a student with a fixed mindset will say, “I give up, I can’t do this!” But a student with a growth mindset will say, “I can improve if I keep trying.”

How can you help students develop a growth mindset?

“Direct” Approaches: How to talk to your students about growth mindset

  1. Help students develop a growth mindset by talking about what it is and how to adopt it.
  2. After introducing growth mindset, ask your students to write a brief letter to a student in another school, or a student who will take the same course in the future. The goal of the letter is to explain what growth mindset is, why they should adopt one, and some strategies to do so. Having students do this exercise can help them internalise those ideas.

“Indirect” Approaches: How to create a “growth-oriented” context in your class

  1. Pay attention to how you structure your class and the signals it sends to your learners. Are you structuring assignments in ways that reward incremental progress (e.g. letting students rework problems for more credit)?
  2. Consider the language you use with students, and make sure to highlight both the effort as well as approaches that are likely to lead to success. Pair messages like, “Keep trying, I know you can get it!” with actionable steps they can take (e.g., “Before your next attempt, why don’t you talk this problem over with one of your classmates and see if you can figure out what part is giving you the most trouble.”)

How do they determine their progress?

A student’s motivation is more likely to increase if they gauge their progress by looking at their own improvements, rather than by comparing themselves to others.

Some goals are self-focused—they use self-referenced improvement as their barometer (e.g. “How have I developed from when I started?”)—which some researchers refer to as “mastery goals.”

Others may use their peers as a way to gauge their own achievement (e.g. “How am I doing compared to everyone else?”), often labeled as “performance goals.”

You should encourage mastery goals as a general approach and think strategically about places where performance goals can be used effectively. It is important to have a classroom-oriented more around progress than markers of performance (like scores). Here are three ways you can achieve that:

  1. Structure lessons and assignments so they continuously build off one another.
  2. Demonstrate individual students’ progress compared to their own benchmarks.
  3. Allow and encourage revision of work (where possible, such as submitting multiple drafts of writing or reworking of incorrect homework problems).

Help students see that it’s worth the effort.

We all do this—either subconsciously or explicitly. We ask ourselves, “How hard is it going to be?” and, “What do I get out of it?” before deciding to do a task. If students believe they have the knowledge and skills to succeed and understand the value of what they’re doing, they are more likely to be motivated.

Balance external rewards with activities that increase internal motivation.

Another way of increasing motivation relies on extrinsic (external) factors—rewards of various kinds, or the avoidance of punishment—rather than internal factors. While it would not be a good idea to have people rely solely on extrinsic motivation, it can have a place in the suite of tools available. You will find a table in the full report that will help you decide when it is appropriate to use it.

The different aspects of motivation discussed in this guide provide potentially useful ways of increasing students’ engagement and perseverance in their learning journey. In the full report, you can read how two educators improved their students’ motivation.

About the author

Dan Belenky is Director of Learning Science Research at Pearson. Prior to joining Pearson in 2014, he was a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Dan earned his PhD in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied how student motivation interacts with (and is impacted by) innovative instructional methods. His current research projects explore how insights from cognitive psychology and behavioral science can be used to improve learner outcomes, at scale.

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