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Motivation strategies

Teaching strategies

Motivation strategies for the classroom practitioner

A guide for teachers, teacher aides, parents, tutors, home schoolers and school managers

Motivational strategies – a set of strategies used by teachers to encourage students to engage more enthusiastically in learning activities.

Art project being overseen by a teacher aide.

Motivation is a person’s desire to engage in an activity. Everyone is motivated to do something, whether it be watching TV or running a marathon. Unfortunately, there is often a misalignment between what students are motivated to do and what teachers want students to do. For example, students want to socialise while teachers want a worksheet completed. This mismatch is the cause of almost all behavioural issues found in classrooms today.i After all, if students had no interest in anything but learning, there would be close to no behavioural problems. It is reasonable to assume then, that if teachers could increase student motivation, behavioural issues would reduce, and achievement would improve. This begs the question: how can teachers improve student motivation?

Everyone is motivated to do something, whether it be watching TV or running a marathon. Unfortunately, there is often a misalignment between what students are motivated to do and what teachers want students to do.

Motivation is always driven by a reward of some kind. Teachers refer to 2 main types of rewards: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic rewards come in the form of money, treats, gifts, stickers, prizes, certificates and benefits such as leaving class before everyone else. Teachers tend to use extrinsic rewards extensively, even though it is frowned upon by some. However, the practical realities of busy dynamic classrooms are that teachers use all of the tools available to them and many students are easily motivated by extrinsic rewards; using them is therefore a ‘no brainer’. Extrinsic rewards are commonly used by teachers for behaviour management purposes. They are less effective for learning purposes, especially for deep learning and long-term memory.ii Extrinsic reward systems also require constant management and monitoring.

Intrinsic motivation on the other hand is a person’s self-inspired motivation to undertake a task.

Intrinsic motivation on the other hand is a person’s self-inspired motivation to undertake a task. The rewards are self-satisfying, such as the feeling of accomplishment that comes from achieving a goal, the feeling of mastering a skill or activity, recognition by peers, or satisfying a personal curiosity. Some students are also motivated by the future benefits that comes from dedicating themselves to learning such as getting good grades and getting into a university course that requires a high score. Intrinsically motivated students have no need for physical (extrinsic) rewards such as treats and stickers – they don’t need to be bribed or coerced.

Extrinsic motivators are effective but only up to a certain point. An intrinsically motivated student however will persist and achieve to a level well beyond that which an extrinsically motivated student could ever achieve. Consider students who are intrinsically motivated to read – avid readers. These students read well above their age and they usually have exceptional spelling, writing, grammar and comprehension skills. They can usually read significantly faster than their peers and they quite often exceed the comfortable reading speed of their parents and teachers. There is simply no way that a student can be motivated with extrinsic rewards alone to reach that level of skill (regardless of their intellect or how much they practise). A person who loves reading will voluntarily spend thousands of hours reading an enormous number of texts. An extrinsically motivated person on the other hand, will read the minimum number of pages or books required to receive their reward.

An intrinsically motivated student however will persist and achieve to a level well beyond that which an extrinsically motivated student could ever achieve.

However, extrinsic rewards (while not ideal) are effective if used appropriately and sparingly. Fortunately for busy teachers, they are easy to implement, and the effects can be gauged immediately. Intrinsic motivation is much more difficult to inspire among students – it takes persistence and time. An important factor in developing intrinsic motivation is improving students’ confidence. People like to do things that they are good at – both adults and children alike. However, teachers are not miracle workers. Taking a student who hates reading and inspiring them to become an avid reader is a tall order – if not impossible. The level of motivation that teachers should aim to achieve should be directly related to the goals of the program. At the very least, teachers want students to be motivated enough to meet or exceed those goals. When teachers actively implement motivational strategies, it is usually to raise student motivation to the point where educational goals are achievable. There are diminishing returns above this point (although for obvious reasons, the higher each student’s motivation, the better).

When teachers actively implement motivational strategies, it is usually to raise student motivation to the point where educational goals are achievable.

A combination of extrinsic (short-term) and intrinsic (long-term) motivation strategies such can be employed depending on the context. Teachers can quite easily:

  • make learning fun, engaging and interesting
  • incorporate the latest technologies and devices
  • experiment with a wide range of teaching strategies, including both teacher-centred and student-centred activities
  • make learning relevant to students’ interests, previous knowledge, life outside of school and future employment
  • provide plenty of opportunities for students to set and achieve goals
  • provide feedback that shows when goals have been met
  • help all students to experience the feeling of success and triumph
  • publicly acknowledge achievement where appropriate to do so (for example, hang work samples, speak with parents, provide positive feedback in front of their peers)
  • build rapport and show genuine interest (people learn from those they like and respect)
  • be enthusiastic, professional and show a high level of expertise and interest in your subject
  • encourage a sense of belonging, community and safety
  • emphasise the long-term effects of learning and the future benefits
  • use a ‘strength-based’ approach (in other words, dwell less on student mistakes while highlighting their successes)
  • help your students to improve their self-esteem and self-efficacy (perceived competence)
  • have high expectations for all your students
  • teach for different learning styles to provide variety and maintain interest
  • give your students more control and choice over their own learning
  • teach metacognitive skills and coping strategies
  • avoid social comparisons – have a developmental mindset instead (where everyone improves).

Foot notes:

  1. Ikeogu, N. (2011). An exploration of the link between pupil motivation and disruptive behaviour in the classroom. PhD thesis, Institute of Education: University of London.
  2. Guay, F., Chanal, J., Ratelle, C. F., Marsh, H. W., Larose, S., & Boivin, M. (2010). Intrinsic, identified, and controlled types of motivation for school subjects in young elementary school children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(4).

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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