Having students who love to learn is one of the greatest joys of teaching. In addition to making your job easier, these students are much more likely to excel both in the classroom and in life. But when you have students who aren’t so motivated – especially those who are naturally gifted – encouraging them isn’t always easy.
Aside from constantly nagging them about doing homework or studying harder, what’s a teacher to do? Here, educators and experts share their tips on motivating students who aren’t reaching their full potential.
Why Motivation Matters
If you’ve ever tried to motivate an underperforming student, you know that there are many complex factors at play. When that student is particularly gifted, it can be even harder to understand why they aren’t reaching the potential you know they’re capable of. Gifted teaching consultant and educational therapist Carol S. Whitney explains that gifted students often don’t receive the right amount of guidance, because people often expect them to achieve on their own.
So what’s at risk if all students aren’t motivated on a personal level?
Dropping Out author Russell Rumberger explains that poor academic performance in elementary and middle school can cause students to drop out in high school. That means if students aren’t encouraged to perform better at a young age, it could have serious consequences for their futures.
One way to help students feel more motivated is to use guided partners and group projects in the classroom. Harvard University’s online resource Usable Knowledge says that reducing the physical separation between teachers and students helps create a culture of sharing among students and between students and their teacher. This creates a safe environment that encourages students to ask questions and discuss ideas.
Teachers have always used external motivators to inspire students to learn. Gold stars and extra credit seem like a good way to motivate students on the surface. However, recent studies show that they actually may make students more discouraged. According to The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a better way to motivate students is by changing their mindsets. Students who fit in and believe that they belong in school are much more likely to succeed than those who have a negative perception of their school environment.
One way to help students feel like they belong in school is to cultivate school pride. School administrator Derrick Meador suggests that school administrators create various student clubs that are responsible for identifying and meeting daily needs at school.
A student pep club, for example, can motivate students who aren’t on a sports team to get together and cheer on peer athletes. Since teens on a sports team typically feel a greater sense of belonging than those who aren’t, this helps account for everyone else. In addition to promoting school pride, athletes feel supported and camaraderie among athletes and nonathletes is improved.
Motivation vs. Bribery
However you decide to promote motivation in the classroom, it’s important to differentiate between motivation and bribery.
Exquisite Minds: Gifted and Creative Children says that offering a student a reward for doing something will make them more likely to complete that task. But if you want that child to become more intrinsically motivated to complete a task, the reward must be relevant to the task itself. That way, the student will learn the correlation between the task and the reward and will assume responsibility for it on their own.
Goal Setting and Purpose
Unmotivated students are often reluctant to complete their work because they don’t see the point. If there isn’t a good reason for doing something, why should they do it?
Raising Lifelong Learners says that teachers can overcome this obstacle by explaining the purpose of each task in detail before assigning it. When students have time to understand why a task matters before they start it, they’ll be more inclined to engage with it and try their best. Teachers can also use this opportunity to ask students what they think about the work, and why they think it will help them in the future.
Another way to establish purpose is to set goals. When students understand the final outcome of their efforts, they have a more tangible grasp on why each assignment matters. School principal David Palank suggests a goal sheet for students to complete at the beginning of each period. This simple form asks students to commit to learning at the beginning of class, establishing a climate of learning early on. Then, students are asked to review their commitment at the end of class and reflect on whether or not they’ve reached their goals.
Computers can be an especially helpful tool for aiding students in staying motivated. Tanya Roscorla at Converge writes that computers help teachers differentiate instruction and let students correct mistakes more quickly. This allows advanced students to move forward more quickly, because they don’t have to wait for the rest of the class to catch up and go over a problem or review a text.
Students are much less likely to be engaged in a subject when they find it irrelevant. To better motivate students, literacy expert John T. Guthrie and Angela MacRae suggest choosing lessons that relate to students’ lives. This is easy to do through reading, for example, where teachers can select texts where the main character reflects the reader. Guthrie explains that by establishing relevancy, students are more intrinsically motivated to learn and excel.
According to the Southern Regional Education Board, asking students to engage with these relevant texts and lessons can encourage deeper thinking. For example, teachers can provide students with a list of statements about something they’ve read. Then, teachers can ask students to indicate whether they agree or disagree with those statements and justify their stance on the issues.
Another aspect of establishing relevancy is finding what students enjoy and teaching around those specific topics for each student. Also known as personalized learning, Blue by eXplorance says that educators need to adopt student-centered lessons that can meet individual needs and cater to specific learning styles.
The National Association for Gifted Children agrees, explaining that natural interest areas provide learning opportunities. If a child is interested in baseball, for example, a teacher has a wealth of opportunities to create lessons around the topic. From the geographies of where players live to the physics of baseball, it’s important to find opportunities to cultivate student interest.
Another way to motivate students through goal setting is to be more aware of how students feel. Underperformance expert Eric Jensen suggests taking in subtle cues, like a student’s posture and general sense of wellbeing. By trying to gauge how a student is feeling, you can better understand how likely they are to feel motivated on their own. If students seem tired, they’ll probably be unengaged in the task at hand. Try a quick activity to get them up and moving so they’re energized and ready to learn.
Once your students are ready to learn, try tapping into their inner desires to inspire and motivate them. Smart Classroom Management explains that using detailed and specific statements of praise that is earned is much more inspirational than frequent generic ones. When students realize that their work means something, they’ll view it with higher value. In turn, this will make them more excited about working hard on their work because they want to do well.