What motivates students to learn?

What motivates students to learn
Read and Spell blog
What motivates students to learn?

Teachers and parents recognize the power of motivation in enhancing learning outcomes and helping students to achieve their best at school. A motivated student might do his or her homework without being asked to, go above and beyond the requirements of assignments and participate in classroom discussions without being prompted.

More importantly, he or she may be more able to view a poor exam result as a learning opportunity instead of as an academic failure. So what motivates students to learn and how can we encourage them?

Students may be motivated by their interest in a topic, their prior success in a specific subject, a desire to please parents or teachers or simply by their own drive to succeed. However, motivation works best when children also have a healthy self-image, are confident in their abilities and know how to take a step-by-step approach to problem solving.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

There are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsically motivated individuals learn because of a desire that comes from within. Extrinsic motivation is when an outside force is involved in encouraging students to learn.

Whereas adults are more autonomous and can make decisions about what they want to study, children are often forced to learn whatever is in the school curriculum. This can mean they are not always intrinsically motivated to master a specific subject and may rely on extrinsic motivation, including rewards or negative consequences based on performance.

However, there are ways to help foster more intrinsic motivation in kids. See below for a list of ideas for teachers and learn more in our posts on the importance of motivation and motivating kids to read.

Ideas for teachers looking to foster more motivation and engagement in the classroom

Ideas for fostering motivation and engagement

One step at a time

Feeling overwhelmed at school is a common sentiment among students that can cause them to lose motivation, no matter how passionate they are about a topic. While adults tend to be good at seeing the big picture and breaking a task down into logical steps, this skill may not be as intuitive for younger learners.

Teachers can help by doing some of the work for students and structuring assignments in a step-by-step manner.

Revisiting yesterday’s task, introducing today’s lesson and briefly mentioning tomorrow’s, helps kids develop strong planning skills and be more self-efficacious in their learning. It’s also a good way to motivate students to focus on one thing at a time, so they don’t feel overwhelmed

Let students choose

To the extent that it is possible, allow students some say in what and how they learn.

When you are in control of your learning you are more invested in the outcome. Many teachers have a set school curriculum they must cover, but there is usually a way to customize lesson content by providing examples and/or anecdotes that both reinforce learning and are of particular interest to students. 

It can also be useful to introduce children to a variety of learning styles as they may discover they are more successful taking a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic approach. This is particularly true for students who struggle with specific learning difficulties

Success fosters motivation to learn so the more accommodating teachers can be, the better. To learn more, see our tips for teachers on helping students with dyslexia and dyspraxia in the classroom.

Praise effort over result

Whether or not a learner is particularly successful in a task, remind them that trying their hardest is what counts and praise their efforts. This helps individuals build healthy self-esteem so students maintain a positive view of themselves, regardless of the marks they earn at school.

Children with healthy self-esteem are often more confident in the classroom and more willing to take on new challenges. They may find it easier to embrace their successes and see their failures as performance issues which are separate from their self-worth. Learn more about helping students build self-confidence.

In addition, when teachers concentrate on honing a student’s approach to problem solving and developing their skills vs. completing a particular task successfully, they help students see the big picture and take a more healthy approach to learning. Education is a lifelong pursuit and it’s easier to remain motivated to learn when you understand this.

Focus attention through engagement

Some children have trouble paying attention at school. This may be due to a learning difficulty such as ADHD or events at home that are causing emotional distress and/or distraction. Telling a student to pay attention is often the least effective way to engage them in the task at hand.

Instead, try free writing assignments or group activities that ask learners to brainstorm personal connections to the material before they begin a lesson. This will make it easier for them to engage with the content and form lasting memories.

You may also ask students to get up from their desks and move around the room or perform some physical task to engage both their minds and bodies in the upcoming lesson.

A multi-sensory approach, such as the one taken by the Touch-type Read and Spell Course, is another great way to do this. It involves seeing, hearing and typing, adding a tactile element to literacy skills development as students use muscle memory in the hands to help with mastering skills such as spelling

Review progress and set realistic goals

Defining learning milestones based on what an individual has already achieved sets them up for success and helps to ensure motivation to learn remains strong. It can also make a huge difference in attitude and expectations when teachers, parents and learners sit down together to review past work, chart student progress and set goals for the future. 

Having kids keep a journal or folder where they store all of their work makes it easier to do this. It’s also useful to set regular check-in sessions and ask learners how they feel about the progress they are making. In this way they are involved in the decision-making from the beginning.

Remember, no two students will be exactly alike in their approach to learning. If a student is falling behind his or her peers or failing to make adequate progress, it might be useful to bring in a private tutor who can work one-on-one with the individual and provide the direct support that is needed. Learn more about how to choose a tutor.

Try a self-directed learning program to motivate students

Self-directed learning and motivation

In self-directed learning students take an active vs. passive role in managing their time and assessing their own progress. This encourages intrinsic motivation, as there is no outside pressure to perform or meet deadlines.

Students set the pace and decide how much material to cover in each session. A self-directed approach set within the general guidelines of a structured course can be extremely motivating, particularly for students with learning difficulties who often benefit from over-learning.

That’s because it gives individuals the chance to repeat lessons as many times as is needed without the stigma of taking longer than their peers.

While it is not always possible to follow a self-direct approach in a classroom context, it may be easier to achieve outside of regular school hours. Some districts offer access to self-directed courses, including touch-typing programs like TTRS.

Learn more in touch-typing for schools.

Additional support

If a student has had a negative experience with school in the past, it can be harder for teachers to motivate them.

Some educators find it useful to introduce a new platform for learning, one that teaches an independent skill but still supports reading, writing and spelling abilities.

Learn more

The TTRS program has been successfully used for students who struggle with specific learning difficulties, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, ADD and ADHD.

The step-by-step approach and positive feedback built into the course ensure success and help learners build motivation. It’s also a useful tool for improving self-esteem and self-confidence at school.

Do you have any tips to share on motivating students to learn? Join the discussion in the comments!

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About the Author 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham, an education consultant, and a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language.
Reviewed by 

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman has a BA cum laude in Sociology, and has undertaken post grad work in education and educational technology. She spent 20+ years working in public health and in the charity sector.
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