#54U: On Motivation

Children naturally love to learn. And yet, as many teachers see in their own classroom, and studies reveal, student motivation to learn tend to decline over time. So what can educators do to help the children in our care succeed? As we all know, a great teacher can make learning fun and inspire students to reach their full potential. Here are five easy ways you can start motivating in your classroom.

1. Create a Safe Space

Get to know your students and let them know you. With the increasingly loaded curriculum, pressure from testing, and a sense of “lost time” from last year, it may seem like spending time getting you know your students is keeping you from getting to the “real work”, but, as every

Allow children a say in what their classroom or space looks like, where they choose to learn and play, and what the classroom routines will be. When I was teaching we took the time to reorganize our classroom on a regular basis. When I trusted them, students thought carefully about what kind of space we needed to support the kind of learning we were doing at that moment, who they wanted to work with, or if they preferred to work alone. And they trusted me to listen to them.

Another important part of building a space where everyone feels safe, is making the effort to make sure everyone understands and has a role to play in your community. This is a powerful way of cultivating a sense of competency and cooperation between students, and helps set the stage for powerful peer learning.  

2. Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Be yourself – someone who has strengths and areas to grow. Make mistakes a regular part of learning, and help your students understand how to move on from a mistake. Provide space for students’ strengths to shine and be recognized by the community.  I had students be my artist whenever I needed something drawn on the whiteboard, one was assigned to discretely let me know when I had marker on my face (a common occurrence), and another remembered my keys for me.

from https://fabulousinfirst.com/2014/09/linking-up-late.html

We always started the year by reading the book “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. After reading it we would make a list of strengths, talents and personal attributes we had in the classroom – everyone was recognized for something that made a difference in our community. We would hang this on the wall, and add to it when new strengths and abilities became visible. This is a great resource similar to what I did. There is even an International Dot Day to help you plan!

3. Follow Your Students

They will tell you what they want to learn – even if it is only by telling you what they don’t want to learn. Offer choices in what to learn, how to learn and how to demonstrate their learning.  Better yet, develop the choices with your students. #GeniusHour and #PassionBasedLearning are two ways you can do this, but there are many approaches. These practices develop a sense of competency and give students a sense of control in their learning, which is sure to be motivating.

Don’t buy into the notion of a separation between playing and learning! 

Older students can benefit from play in the classroom, too. “Play is a strategy for learning at any age… while older students and their teachers might have more curricular demands than younger students, playful learning still has an important role to play — it might just look different.

Mara Krechvesky and Ben Mardell

Try to plan activities that inspire a sense of ownership, curiosity, and enjoyment in your students.

4. Provide Feedback That Helps the Learner Move Forward

Understand the difference between Assessment for Learning and Assessment of Learning, and use them appropriately. Use grades sparingly, and never as a carrot and hammer. John Hattie reminds us that “Feedback provides information about how and why students understand, and what the students need to do next to succeed”. Learn more about how to use assessment effectively in student-centered, project-based learning settings (look for a future post on this!)  Rubrics, conferencing, and Reflection will likely be your friend! Always ask yourself if the feedback you are about to give will motivate the student to try again, or make them feel defeated and incapable.

5. Incorporate Reflection

Teresa and Christ Hulleman suggest “instead of imposing reasons for valuing learning on students, educators can help them make their own connections between their lives and what they are learning”. Building in time for reflection is an important part of this. They have created a resource called “Build Connections” to help students learn how to reflect on the links between what they find of interest and importance in their lives, and what they are learning.

Self-reflection in learning means examining the way an individual learns. It implies that without thinking deeply about how we learn, we can never gain the insight necessary to correct poor habits and affirm good ones. This cognitive process of self-reflection therefore not only helps students improve learning outcomes, but fosters self-regulated learning, a cyclical process that involves planning to complete an academic task; using strategies to monitor progress; evaluating the outcome; and using that knowledge to guide future tasks.

Janet Mizrahi

Reflection should not only be part of your student’s daily learning, but also your own practice. I believe reflection is one of the most powerful learning tools we can use, and will be talking more about how to use Reflective Writing for both students and your own practice in future posts, so stay tuned.

As a start, think about the following questions regarding strategies you use to address student motivation:

  • Which of these strategies  to motivate your students do you already use very well in your practice? Why?
  • Which of these strategies would you like to start incorporating? Why?
  • Which of these strategies do you think would be difficult in your circumstances? Why?


Hattie, J & Clarke S. (2019). Visible Learning Feedback. London. Routledge: Taylor & Francis.

Gärdenfors, P. (2011, October 11). How to Motivate Students? . Retrieved from https://youtu.be/blWcbY5qA58

Hulleman, C. & Hulleman T. (2018, January 10). An important piece of the student motivation puzzle. FutureEd. Retrieved September 13, 2021 from https://www.future-ed.org/reversing-the-decline-in-student-motivation/

Mizrahi, J. (2020, May 14). The importance of self-reflection in learning . Today’s Learner. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from https://todayslearner.cengage.com/the-importance-of-self-reflection-in-learning/.

Reynolds, P.H. (2014). The Dot. Somerville: Candlewick Press.

Tatter, G. (2019, March 11). Playing to learn. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/19/03/playing-learn.

Yarborough, C. B., & Fedesco, H. N. (2020). Motivating students. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [September 12, 2021] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu//cft/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/.