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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

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.

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

And students are still failing.

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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.

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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 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.

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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 David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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