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How to Motivate Students

Two Parts:Creating a Supportive and Positive EnvironmentCreating Challenges

Nobody ever said that teaching students was easy. Motivating them to learn is even more difficult. Whether you're teaching eighth graders or adult learners at a vocational school, it can be a challenge to make students want to work and learn on their own. However, there are many approaches you can take to make learning more fun, exciting, and necessary for students. If you want to know how to motivate students, see Step 1 to get started.

Part 1
Creating a Supportive and Positive Environment

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    Understand why motivating students is such a challenge. The thing about students is that they are exposed to so many different people acting as "teachers" in their lives. Everyone and everything is trying extremely hard to stimulate these students, make them think, make them work, and make them into people the world can be proud of. Because of this overwhelming input of stimulus and influence, students struggle to find their own identity and are inherently suspicious of anyone who tries to influence them.
    • Once they have recognized this, they tend to deal with the constant environmental pressure by adopting one important policy: "I will only allow you to influence me if you prove to me that you're worth it." This policy is their mechanism of making sure that the right person gets to them at the right time, and it's a good way of doing it. The only time it becomes an issue is when they get impressed by a person who is a bad influence, or when a good person makes no effort to impress them.
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    Make a positive impression. If you want to motivate your students, then you have to prove that you are person who is worth listening to. They may be suspicious of you on the first day, but you can work to earn their trust and respect. To do this, you have to stand out to them. You can't do this if you blend into the murky background of life. You need to stand out, catch their attention and hold it. Here are some ways to make a positive impression on your students:
    • Be vocal. Have an opinion and make sure you submit it at an appropriate time. Avoid talking too much and/or being too opinionated. You need to come across as being informative, intelligent, and as a person who is not afraid to speak their mind, not someone who is arrogant and self-centered.
    • Be passionate about what you're teaching. Wide eyes, a grin and barely suppressed enthusiasm does wonders for a student. Even if they're not interested in your subject, your manner would amuse them. Most of all, because you are adamantly expressing your love for a subject, they will tend to mark you as a genuine person.
    • Be energetic. Enthusiasm is contagious. It is also a lot harder for students to fall asleep in class if the teacher is bouncing off the walls (not that I am recommending bouncing off the walls). Make sure you have the energy to market your subject and yourself well.
    • Put an effort into your appearance. You need to make a good impression; make sure you walk into class looking good. Try to dress a little better or differently than the average person.
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    Go the extra mile. Do more than the average teacher is expected to do. In the case of a student who is struggling to turn in work on time, the next time it happens, call him after class and go through the entire assignment with him. Help the student write it, show the student how to do research, and show him some papers other students have written. This is great because it eliminates multiple problems: if it's the student's attitude, you are eliminating their excuses and if they genuinely were struggling with the work, they know exactly how to deal with it now.
    • Be attentive, answer all questions and make sure they've completely understood your actions. Make sure you tell them that you will not work with them like this again. Ask them if they have understood and wait for their affirmative response before dismissing them.
    • Of course, there's a difference between going the extra mile and letting your students take advantage of you. You should give them extra help when they need it, but do not do so if it means sacrificing your principles.
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    Offer extra information about your subject. If you want the students to be excited about what you're teaching, then you'll have to go above and beyond the curriculum. Keep the students updated with recent developments regarding their subject. If you are a science teacher for example, you could 1) Bring an article from Scientific American for the students to read in class or 2) Give the students a summary of the article, show them pictures of the article, ask them questions about the concepts in the article and what certain sentences mean and tell them that you have copies of the article if anyone wants to pick them up after class. The second option is the better one.
    • You need to understand that it is your job to get the students interested, not the job of the material you present to them.
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    Give assignments that let students think outside the box. Do an extensive class project that is unconventional and fun. For example, your class could put on a science-related (or whichever subject related) play that you could perform at a local museum for younger children. The whole class could write a book that you could publish using a self-publishing service and donate it to a local library.
    • The thing about this is that the idea has to be different; you have to do it during class time or during some time in school (to avoid transportation and excess time issues) and you have to work with everyone every step of the way.
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    Have a good sense of humor. Having a good sense of humor can help you engage students, make the material more lively, and make it easier for them to relate to you. The fact of the matter is, if you're serious 100% of the time, it'll be much harder for them to care and to really connect with you. Though you don't have to be a goofball, joking around every chance you get, if you create a more fun environment for your students, they will likely be more motivated and eager to learn.
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    Show that you're competent. You are trying to convince students that you are worth listening to, especially if you are trying to motivate them towards your field of study. You need to exhibit your talents. You are not just a teacher; you are really and truly good at what you do. It is almost like how you would present yourself during a job interview. Be humble about it, but don't hide it. Make sure your pride comes through when you are talking to the students about your experiences or contributions. If you have impressive contacts, invite them over. Try not to ask them to make a speech though; an interview type of interaction would be best.
    • If your students think that you don't really know your stuff, then they'll be more likely to get lazy when it comes to assignments, or to think that you won't notice if they haven't read the material carefully.
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    Be on the lookout for students who need extra reassurance. If a student looks depressed or unwell, call him or her out after class and just ask if he or she is all right. Try to keep yourself semi-occupied when you do this. Look at them when you ask, but don't keep staring until you get an answer. If they say they are fine, don't press them unless you think there's a serious problem at hand. Just say, "Just thought you looked a bit down back there" and drop it and continue working. Just the fact that you're concerned is enough for them.
    • If a student who is having trouble sees that you care enough to notice him or her, then this will motivate the student to work harder. If the student thinks that you don't care whether he works hard or not or don't care how he is feeling, then he'll be much less likely to make an effort.
    • Consider bending a few rules if a student is really having a hard time. This requires a bit of care, but tends to really establish trust. If a student has been consistently not turning in work and they show up and tell you they haven't completed the assignment again, you need to recognize that something is wrong (even if it is just the student's attitude) and help. Discretely give them a bit more time to do it and make the topic a little bit easier. Yes, it's bending the rules, but what you're doing is eliminating reasons for this to repeat itself. Make sure it is clear that you will not grant extensions like this again.
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    Ask the students to share their opinions. Your students are less likely to be motivated if they feel that you are simply lecturing at them and not caring what they think. If you ask them what they think about a certain political issue, a literary passage, or the validity of a scientific experiment, they are more likely to perk up and to speak out. If they feel that you care about what they have to say, they will come out of their shells and will be excited to share their views with you.
    • Remember that there's a difference between encouraging a healthy debate and having students share their unsubstantiated opinions. Make sure that the students always have evidence to back up their ideas.
    • Of course, if you're teaching math or a foreign language and there is less room for students to share their opinions, try bringing some additional relevant information about the subject into the classroom. Sure, your 8th grade students may not have an opinion on Spanish verb conjugation in the present tense, but they may have an opinion on the effectiveness of immersion learning if you bring in a relevant article about the process.
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    Encourage lively class discussion. If you lecture all the time, students are likely to zone out. If you want to keep students motivated to learn and keep them on their toes, then you have to facilitate meaningful class discussions throughout your class. Ask questions, not of the class, but of each student directly, calling each one out by name. The fact of the matter is, no student wants to be called on without knowing the answer to the question, and if the students know this is a possibility, they will be prepared with an answer throughout the class.
    • Not only will this make students more likely to read up on the material and be prepared for class, but it will also make them more excited to come to class, because they will feel that their opinions matter.
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    Get to know the students before you praise them. If you have a new class and you stand up before them and tell them how you know they are all wonderful people and in this class they will learn how to change the world, the students won't believe you and they will lose respect for you. What they're thinking is how can you know what kind of people they are without making an effort to find out? How do you expect them to change the world when you aren't telling them what the world is? How can you have the exact same expectation of everybody? And they're right.
    • To most teachers, all students are the same and so they feel comfortable expressing themselves in that sort of speech, but to a good teacher, each student is different.
    • Even avoid the "Some of You" speech ("Some of you will become lawyers, some of you doctors, etc"). Save the speech for one of the last classes you have with them (not the last class) and make it personal. For example: "Ryan will find a cure for cancer, Kevin will give Bill Gates a run for his money, Wendy will decorate the world, Carol will probably give Kevin a run for his money...".
    • Add a bit of humor and make sure it's obvious to the students that you have gotten to know something about every one of them. These are your expectations for these kids, just as you have proven yourself to them, they have proven themselves to you.
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    Show the students how your subject matter impacts the world. Expose them to the stimulus that they were blocking off before. Issues concerning people, the community, the country, the world. Anything that is important to you. Anything you want to motivate them with. Now that you've gained their trust and they've decided you're worth listening to... they will. They will try to understand where you're coming from and why you feel a certain way. Even if they don't agree, they will be willing to make the effort.
    • You may have trouble motivating your students because they look at your subject, whether it's British literature or American history, and don't see how it applies to their everyday lives. Bring in a book review or a newspaper article, and show them that what they're learning does have an impact on the outside world. If they see practical, real-life applications to the subject matter, they will be much more inclined to care about it.

Part 2
Creating Challenges

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    Make the students "experts" on a topic. You'll be amazed by how motivated students get if you ask them to present on a topic either in groups or individually. They will feel the excitement and responsibility of being an expert on a particular topic, whether it's The Catcher in the Rye or electron configuration. Preparing for projects or presentations outside of class will make students more eager to learn, and is a great way to mix up the curriculum and to keep things interesting.
    • Also, having students present on a given topic will get their peers more motivated to learn. Sometimes, students can get sick of seeing you standing up in front of the class the entire time, and seeing their peers presenting on a subject can be a breath of fresh air.
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    Encourage group work. Group work can help students get to know each other, make them see the material in a new light, and can help them feel motivated to succeed. If a student is working on his own, he may not feel the same pressure to succeed as he would when working with a group of other people, where he has a designated role. Group work is also a great way to mix up the curriculum, so students do something different during class.
    • You can also encourage some healthy competition between groups. Whether you have a grammar challenge on the board, group Jeopardy about a given topic, or another activity or game that each group tries to win, you'll find that students get more motivated to participate and get the correct answer when they have some competition (as long as it is healthy, and not discouraging).
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    Give extra credit assignments. Extra credit assignments can help students take the material to a new level and work to improve their grades. For example, if you're a chemistry teacher and know that some students are struggling, assign an optional book report on a fun-but-science-themed book like The Universe in a Nutshell. Students will have fun appreciating science on a new level and will gain insight into the material while improving their grades.
    • You can give assignments that show a larger application of your material. If you're an English teacher, for example, give extra credit to students who attend a poetry reading in your community and report on it. Have them share their report with the class; this will help motivate students and will encourage them to go above and beyond, too.
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    Provide choices. Students get more motivated when they are given some choices during their coursework. Choices help them feel like they have some control over their learning and motivation. Give them a choice of lab partner, or provide them with a number of options when you give their next essay or short assignment. You can still provide plenty of structure while allowing students to have some choices as well.
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    Give helpful feedback. If you want to motivate students, then your feedback has to be thorough, clear, and meaningful. If they see what their strengths are and where they can improve, they will be much more motivated to learn than they would if all they got on their assignments was a written grade and a sentence of inscrutable feedback. Take the time to let them see that you really care about their success and that you would love to help them improve.
    • If you have the time, you can schedule conferences with students to chart their progress throughout the course. This individual attention will show them that you really care and that you're keeping an eye on their work.
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    Make your expectations clear. Give students rubrics, clear instructions, and even examples of successful assignments to show them what you're looking for. If they have no idea what you really want or how to succeed in your class, they will be much less motivated to do well. Having clear directions and a teacher who is willing to answer any questions they may have about the assignment can help motivate them to do well.
    • Take the time to answer questions after you explain an assignment. Students may act like they know everything, but if you press them, you'll find that there is always room for clarification.
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    Mix things up in the classroom. Though lecturing may be appropriate to your subject matter, the more you can mix things up in the classroom, the more motivated students will be. For example, you can give a 10-15 minute "mini lecture," followed by a group assignment that demonstrates knowledge of the concepts you just covered. Then, you can create an activity on the board, have a student present on an extra credit assignment, or show a quick video about your material. Keeping a dynamic class schedule will keep students motivated and on their toes.
    • Having an agenda for each class, either on paper or written on the board, can also help motivate students, who like to know what to expect.


  • Make your involvement seem effortless. Whether you're talking, teaching, listening, clearing up your desk, reading something. You need to make it look completely effortless.
  • Don't jump on every tiny misbehavior. Your students need to feel that their education comes first, not your authority.
  • Do not talk slowly and deliberately. This gives students the impression that you don't think they'll get it if you talk at a normal pace.
  • Do not be over-attentive.
  • You have a teacher-student relationship, do not jeopardize that. Don't put yourself out as 'friend not teacher'. You need to respect the boundary here. You are a teacher, just a really good and different one.
  • You can't come across as someone who is "only human". If you are having a bad day, don't let it show. If you are upset or angry, don't let it show. You need to be the superhero figure here. At this point in their lives, these kids' role models are turning human. They are falling sick, disappointing everyone, getting divorced, getting depressed and are leaning on the student. The student interprets this as a sign that they are not strong enough to hold themselves up and don't lean back. They need someone to lean on, just in case. Your 'mortality' will jeopardize the chances of that someone being you. Don't tell them your problems, don't show them your weaknesses (unless it's something trivial like drawing a straight line). If they come to you with a problem, relate by saying "That happened to me once" instead of saying "Oh crap, I know what that's like".
  • If you are a slow speaker generally, try talking faster than usual.
  • Do not smile too much and don't smile to the whole class. Smile occasionally and to a specific person.


  • You can't get through to everybody. Be prepared for that. Then again, as an instructor, make sure they understand you only want to motivate them to become productive citizens!

Article Info

Categories: Classroom Management and Student Conduct