Opinion | Michigan Teacher of the Year: 5 ways to motivate students

Editor’s note: This column first appeared as a post on Luke Wilcox’s blog lukewilcox.org

Teachers spend years of hard work and thousands of dollars to become experts in their content areas, with degrees and teaching certification to prove it. We develop curriculum maps and teaching calendars to be sure to cover the appropriate standards. We endure hours of professional development so that we are well versed in all the current educational pedagogy. We collaborate with colleagues so that we are all using best practices in the classroom. We develop assessments for students so that we can track their progress.

Luke Wilcox, a math instructor and teacher leader at East Kentwood High School, is the 2017-18 Michigan Teacher of the Year

When all this doesn’t work, we have intentional interventions aimed at getting students back on track.

And students are still failing.

Opinion: Want to improve literacy in Michigan? Restore school librarians

The problem is that many students are not motivated to learn. Even with the perfect lesson plan in place, an unmotivated student will not learn. Some teachers claim that motivating students is not their job. It is a teacher’s job to know the content and to teach it well; the student must take responsibility for his or her learning and find his or her own motivation.

This old-fashioned idea is what limits many teachers to being average. A great teacher recognizes that student motivation is necessary for success in learning and that teachers are in the perfect position to improve student motivation.

Here are some strategies that can be used in the classroom to help motivate students:

1. Promote growth mindset over fixed mindset.

In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck argues that students have an underlying belief about learning: either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset belief suggests that people are born with or without certain abilities and talents, and that abilities cannot be changed. Fixed mindset learners try to prove themselves and will often shy away from challenges because they do not want to appear to be struggling.

A growth mindset learner, on the other hand, believes that abilities and talents can be cultivated and improved through hard work. Growth mindset students enjoy a challenge and see struggles and failures as necessary parts of growth. Learners with a growth mindset are certainly more motivated to work hard.

How do we foster a growth mindset in the classroom?

One of the most powerful elements of feedback for our learners is to praise them for their efforts and hard work. “I can tell that you have been practicing your reading” or “The practice is paying off on your times tables,” tells learners that they have the power to improve their academic success.

That said, we must stop praising ability: “Wow, you are such a smart math student,” or “You are such an incredible reader.” Praise for abilities over efforts reinforces the fixed mindset that students have the ability or they don’t and no amount of hard work on the learner’s part can change the outcome. We are all learners, and should be encouraged as such.

Related: On nation’s report card, Michigan students remain in back of class
Related: We read 12 reports on fixing Michigan schools. Here are 4 things we learned
Michigan spent $80 million to improve early reading. Scores went down.

Throughout a learning cycle, teachers assess student progress by incorporating formative and summative assessments. The purpose of formative assessment is to pinpoint the learning needed for ultimate success on a later summative assessment. Formative assessment informs teachers and students about student and classroom needs for improvement so both can act accordingly to improve performance on the final assessment.

Some formative assessments are: a thumbs up/thumbs down check for understanding, a quiz in small groups, or an exit slip at the end of a lesson. What is important is that students get timely and descriptive feedback from the assessment so that they can move forward in their learning. This cycle of learning will improve results on a later summative assessment.

As teachers, we can model the growth mindset. Have courage! Ask students for feedback about your teaching and be willing to make necessary changes. Be dedicated! Work hard for students and share how hard work and dedication translates to success and growth. This feedback shows that we, too, are learners. It also invites our students to continue on the learning journey alongside us. Students are always willing to work hard for a teacher that is reciprocating that hard work.

2. Develop meaningful and respectful relationships with your students.

If we are going to truly inspire and motivate all of our students, we should know each of them on a personal level. We need to know their interests and hobbies, who they hang out with, their family situations, and what gets them excited. Each student is going to require different motivational strategies, and we have to know them to be able to predict what strategies might work.

In order to begin that “knowing,” try allowing for five minutes where students may share “Good News.” For example, student A shares, “I am a new uncle! My sister had a new baby boy this weekend!” This is an opportunity for us to learn about our students as people and to let them know that we care about them individually. This also provides an avenue for teachers to share some details about their lives outside of school.

When teachers are willing to share personally and become vulnerable, students are more likely to do the same. When learners see one another as whole people, they are more willing to take risks, and ask the questions they need to ask in order to obtain success.

We all learn differently. In each classroom several types of learners exist: visual, tactile, verbal and more reserved. We can see it as our responsibility to discover this by knowing them and endeavor to teach them accordingly. This work results in our ability to know our students which leads to a more cohesive, open learning community.

3. Nurture a community of learners in your classroom.

Students need a classroom environment that is safe, where they are willing to take risks and struggle. To achieve this goal, the students and teacher must work together towards common collective goals. Students must be willing to work with and assist other students in class. Struggle should be acceptable and encouraged as a part of the learning process.

Traditional teaching consists of teachers lecturing and learners taking notes, followed by the learners doing independent work to check for understanding. Transforming this outdated model to include more time where students are talking to students brings about true community.

Collaborative group work should be the activity between the teacher lecture and the independent work. This is the time when students can digest information and ask questions collectively. Learners participate in what could be considered the “problem solving” phase of their development with new ideas, and together they come to new learnings.

This gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student encourages deeper understanding of lesson rather than rote memorization; thus the students are participants in their own learning, rather than witnesses to the instructor’s knowledge.

Student work should be proudly displayed throughout the classroom. This sends a message to students that they are active participants in creating the knowledge in the classroom. The teacher is not the sole holder of knowledge. Additionally, teachers can use language that promotes the community of learners - including the teacher - rather than a room full of individual learners. Using the words “we” and “our” rather than “I” and “you” has a significant impact on classroom culture, and how students function as interdependent learners.

4. Establish high expectations and establish clear goals.

Setting high expectations and supporting students as they struggle allows learners to rise to meet those expectations. When expectations are transparent, students know where their learning is headed and are motivated to get there because it seems possible: the path is visible. Working towards daily, weekly and yearly goals gives students a purpose and a meaning for the hard work that they do.

Daily learning goals (learning targets, or “I can” statements) should be posted, visible and referenced on a daily basis. Establishing the “goal of the day” at the start of the lesson gives students a purpose for their learning. Students can also formatively assess themselves at the end of each lesson by checking to be sure they have met the learning goals.

Maintaining high expectations for academics is tantamount to learning, but high standards for behavior, academic language, group work, and even the length and format of individual work is also necessary for deep learning. We cannot assume that students know these expectations. They must be clearly outlined.

If we expect students to interact in a certain way together, we need to teach them how, and hold them accountable. If we want an assignment displayed in a certain format, we need to model it and expect it. Once the routines to support expectations are established and clear to the learning community, learning becomes the most important action in the classroom.

5. Be inspirational.

Most adults can recall a specific teacher from their childhood who had a lasting impact. These are the teachers that have inspired, challenged and motivated students enough to be memorable years later.

What makes these teachers inspirational?

Inspirational teachers represent success to their students. Teacher success might be: completing a 10K race, owning a small business, or receiving a teaching award. We each have successes to share. Through our triumphs, students can learn what success looks like and go after it. Once our students decide that they want success, they pay close attention to the behaviors and choices and even sacrifices that led us to our success.

These behaviors include hard work, willingness to struggle and ability to learn from our mistakes. Students internalize our behaviors and strategies as a way to accomplish their own goals. We give them an opportunity to do so in our everyday routines, assignments and encounters with them.

Thoughts or questions? Email me at luke.wilcox@kentwoodps.org or twitter @wilcoxl22

Luke Wilcox joined us as a panelist at our Michigan Solutions Summit on Education. Watch the panel discussion on improving Michigan schools below.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Katherine Johnson
Tue, 04/17/2018 - 12:59pm

"We must stop praising ability." Seriously? If a child is good at math or science or dancing or soccer, we aren't allowed to point that out?

I have great respect for any teacher, but this comment alone speaks volumes as to why we're in the fix we're in. Praising effort alone and not outcomes is not the path to excellence.

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 5:06pm

Yes, stop praising ability. Years ago when I was in high school a student who was a math whiz and knew it was given a "B-" on a teacher's challenging math test. The kid was furious and his father was on the school board; a big deal in my small community. The father (with son in tow) confronted the teacher, and the teacher's response was "Your son just did enough to get by. He has way more potential." Ability does not equate to effort. (See "establish high expectations".)

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 4:59pm

"5. Be inspirational" I was lucky enough to have 2 high school teachers who were an inspiration to me. Both originally came from communities other than the small community I grew up in, and introduced me to a much wider and fascinating world.

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 6:39pm

This seems entire panel seems to believe the problem with educating kids can be addressed by tweeking the Board of Ed, restructuring the accountability of teachers to the educational bureaucracy and eliminating term limits. And do nothing but double down on the same existing thinking the educational system is based on - only according to these experts, just not doing it correctly. No deep systemic questions! Same school segregation by Zip Code. .. Never questioned. Schools as feeders to support massive sports programs? What are schools really for? All seem to believe that students are all just little pieces of clay subject to the same social engineering mold instead of individuals with their own abilities and interests. Parent's part in children's education? Not once did any of these speakers ever mention parents having any part or responsibly in this process, which was very telling. They simply don't exist in this discussion. Politics? The speakers bemoan it but then push every way to make it even more central to the educational system. After listening twice, I hear a complete void instead of deep questions on basic assumptions that have been ignored for the last 50 years! Good luck.

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 11:59am

I'm disappointed to see a teacher of this caliber leading with the statement that "the problem is that many students are not motivated to learn."

Why not use your voice as Teacher of the Year to comment on the lack of financial support from the government? And what about the structure of school administrations that focus more on avoiding lawsuits and meeting government-mandated test scores than actually preparing students to be successful members of society? Surely these are just as significant—if not more so—to the success of schools as the motivation of students.

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 3:38pm

Luke Wilcox first claims that Michigan teachers spend "... hours of professional development so that we are well versed in all the current educational pedagogy. " And then a few paragraphs later he says "In each classroom several types of learners exist: visual, tactile, verbal and more reserved." Which pretty directly contradicts his claim that most of Michigan's teachers are up to date on pedagogy. Mr. Wilcox goes on to discuss the necessity of identifying each students' "learning style" in order to build a relationship with them. The problem? Learning styles have been thoroughly debunked for some time now, most recently and most authoritatively in this study. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ase.1777?referrer_acces...

Most Michigan teachers are trying to do their jobs well, but in many cases, they were and are not very well-equipped by their training for what that job has become. And this is not all their own fault. It is ridiculous to believe, as the law and educational orthodoxy require, that the most important criteria for grouping students for instruction is their calendar age. It is not easy for a teacher to deal with a classroom full of students whose reading level or math competency spans 3 or 4 or even 6 grade-levels, plus students who may have still-undiagnosed learning or behavioral issues. We need to group students by their level of mastery for each subject, starting by the 2nd quarter of kindergarten (or first grade if the student does not attend kindergarten) and continuing through high school.

Sun, 04/22/2018 - 8:45pm

Thank you Mr. Wilcox, you brought to foward the importance of the student in their learning, the factor that differentiates learning success, the means a student takes control of their learning success.
The individual student desire for learning is the determinate of learning success, for the level of desire will drive the persistence, the work, the sacrifices to learn.

I would encourage Mr. Wilcox to reach outside of his classroom for people that have succeed at learning and invite them to talk about why and how they develop their learning skills, its impact their lives, and how they helps them take control of their lives. It is the learning how to learn that is what the current and future will require of people to succeed in careers and life.

I would add to the means/methods for student success is the creating the habit of learning, this relies on the Skinnerian psychology of antecedent-behavior-consequences. The habit is the combination of those three elements, the importance of the habit is that it shift the control to the individual/student, if properly developed the student then sets their learning goals and provides their own reinforcement/feedback so they will learn outside the classroom.

With the acceptance of the students role in their learning this opens up many possibilities, identifying local barriers to their learning, the identification of the micro cultures about learning success, the means and methods for success from the successful students.

I wonder if there is any activities on the west side of the state where people could offer support for this student role/responsibilities approach to learning.

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 3:55am

The biggest cause of teachers leaving in the middle of the year is student discipline. They are not being given the tools to keep the troublemakers from destroying the classroom environment. They are subject to physical threats and emotional stress daily.

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 7:51am

This is good

Sun, 06/16/2019 - 8:01am

Amazing for everyone

mark lopez
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 4:58pm

Solar Repair & Solar Installation Company
Looking for the Best Solar Panel Company Near You?
It is such a shame because teachers should be our most treasured asset, especially right now. We've seen a lot of schools recently be able to provide more funding to teachers by installing solar panels. https://formesolar.com/services/commercial-solar
It can be difficult to search for the best solar companies. What should you look for? A company that does more than just solar panel installation and can ensure they don't have seasonality in their business by also providing services like solar repair and maintenance.

Henry Astin
Tue, 08/18/2020 - 10:04pm

Yes, straight to the point. I still ask myself, whether the arcs model can be used in the medium scale, for instance in a course with a teacher, when a video is presented to gain attention. Or if it even can be used in a smaller scale, f.i. can i produce a tutorial of 2 Minutes, that followes the ARCS-structure? I am not sure about this.