5 quick wins to boost student motivation

We all know motivation is important for learning, but do you know how to improve it? Peps Mccrea offers some simple tips

Peps Mccrea

How teachers can use motivation to engage pupils in learning

What is motivation? For pupils, it is feeling, thinking or knowing that something is worth investing their attention in. And we know that what pupils pay attention to is ultimately what they will learn. 

But there’s no such thing as a general state of "being motivated". The reality is that, as humans, we are motivated towards a particular thing at a particular time for a particular reason.

More on pupil engagement: 

Motivation is less a general character trait, and more a specific response to our immediate environment and prior experience.

Motivation: How to use it to engage pupils in learning

This is an empowering perspective: it puts motivation squarely within our influence. So what can we do about it? 

1. Secure success 

If you help pupils to experience success over time, this leads to expectancy – the sense that they will succeed in future attempts. Pitched at the right level of challenge, this builds proficiency and feelings of agency and fluency, which further fuel motivation.

We can do this not only by explaining well, breaking ideas down, and giving plenty of opportunities for practice, but also by helping pupils to understand what success looks like and having a plan ready for when failure inevitably occurs. 

2. Run routines 

School learning requires effort, and undue effort can degrade motivation. Routines around how pupils learn can save them effort and attention, freeing up cognitive capacity to devote to what they’re learning.

This includes behavioural routines, such as how pupils get their books out at the start of sessions, and instructional routines, such as how whole-class discussions are orchestrated. 

3. Nudge norms 

We are social beings, heavily influenced by those around us, which is why peer groups have such a strong influence on attitudes, behaviour and motivation. We just need to be sure that we’re emphasising what we want to happen rather than what we don’t.

Telling a class that “lots of you didn’t do your homework this week” sends a message to those diligent few that they are at risk of not conforming to group norms. 

4. Build belonging 

The extent to which we feel we belong can also influence our motivation. Building belonging is likely to be a quick win for schools in the wake of remote learning, and can be generated through small acts such as checking in with individuals, signalling that you all now have some shared experiences to draw upon, and communicating a clear sense of purpose that everyone can rally around. 

5. Boost buy-in 

Giving people choice has been shown to motivate, but only when that choice is meaningful. Just as you wouldn’t want your doctor asking you to decide your diagnosis, pupils are not always in the best position to make meaningful decisions about the what and how of their learning.

A better approach is to make decisions on behalf of pupils and then invest our energies in helping them to understand why they are of benefit to them. 

The more of these approaches you use, the greater the effect will be. And if you employ them consistently, you’re likely to see your pupils pay greater attention and put more effort into your lessons, and who wouldn’t be motivated to achieve that?

Peps Mccrea is dean of learning design at Ambition Institute and author of Motivated Teaching

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