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Virginia Journal of Education

Motivation Matters

A Fairfax teacher offers some advice on keeping students engaged.

by Amy Issadore Bloom

Last year, I made the challenging transition from elementary school teacher to middle school teacher. My last class of the day was almost entirely boys and was an ESOL Literature class - basically a mandatory “elective.” The students were rowdy, had that distinct seventh-grade body odor, and hated writing.

As educators, it’s our job not only to differentiate instruction, but also to keep students engaged and motivated—whether it’s ESOL students struggling with the language and missing their home country, students with an IEP who are becoming more aware of their learning disabilities as peers surpass them in reading, or apathetic gifted students.

Most children and teenagers today are extrinsically motivated, accustomed to constant stimulation and rewards. They perform classroom assignments in hopes of getting a good grade, pleasing a teacher or parent, or simply finishing work quickly so they can do something more enjoyable.

We can’t necessarily teach intrinsic motivation, but we can help students learn how to set goals, make smart choices, and gain confidence. We can affect the external factors that contribute to student motivation, and we can provide students with the tools they need to feel successful and valuable.

Improving student motivation involves several things. First, we need to understand our students and the factors that affect motivation. Then we must look at our school environment and teaching practices. Finally, we have to examine our own motivation and attitude. Here are some ideas for accomplishing all that:

Get to know your students. Is something happening in their personal life to cause apathy in class? Are their basic needs being met? A student who is tired or hungry won’t be able to focus. I once had a third grader who could barely stay awake because he was taking care of his baby sister while his parents worked at night. Aside from the lack of sleep, he obviously had more on his mind than whatever topics we were learning in school.

Unfortunately, we can’t provide all students with a safer and healthier home, but we can try to give them some security while they’re in school. (If you have a serious concern, contact a guidance counselor or social worker.) Consider letting students rest in the back of the room when they are tired and clearly unable to focus. It’s often the small things that keep a student motivated. Some students love a few minutes of quiet time to draw or read, others like to listen to music, and almost everyone likes snacks.

Encourage parent involvement. Numerous studies connect parent involvement and student motivation, but many families need encouragement to participate in school, especially those with limited English. Utilize your ESOL teachers, parent liaisons and the community to help families become involved in their child’s education.

Be sensitive to the needs of English Language Learners (ELLs). Students who have recently arrived in the country have often been separated from close family and friends. Aside from learning a new language, they must learn to acclimate to a whole new culture. It’s exhausting, especially for older students. In addition, many live in crowded housing – sharing tiny bedrooms or basements - and finding the time, space and help to do homework is nearly impossible.

In addition to differentiating instruction, try to accommodate for these challenges by giving students extra attention. Showing support and helping them succeed will play a big part in motivating them to stay in school.

Be careful not to misread cultural differences for a lack of motivation. Students with limited English are often hesitant to share answers aloud, or participate in big group activities. Many students are unaccustomed to our emphasis on participation; others are simply self-conscious about their accent.

Counter peer pressure. Many students are easily influenced by negative peer pressure. In some social circles, participating in class and getting good grades is not “cool.” These students would likely benefit from mentoring programs, after-school activities, and strong support and encouragement from teachers and family. Some schools have programs specifically targeted toward high-risk students, like Club BILI (Boys in Literacy Initiative) or Girls on the Run.

Communicate realistic expectations. This is crucial. When establishing expectations, planning lessons and assessing students, keep individual academic ability and personalities in mind. It’s important not to misjudge or stereotype students as lazy or incapable. We must work to maintain high expectations of all our students, even those with behavior problems. It takes just one adult to see a student’s true ability, to give them a chance. Maybe you are that one person.

Teach goal-setting. Help build intrinsic motivation by teaching students how to set goals. I was delighted to work with first graders during writing workshop as they learned to set goals – “I will use a period at the end of every sentence.” It’s a small goal, but a big step in creating long-term motivation.

Middle school and even high school students still need help creating realistic goals. Accomplishing goals, even tiny ones, can be the key to keeping students engaged and motivated.
Give students some choice. Nobody likes being told what to do, what to like, how to dress, and how to act, all the time. Options allow students to feel a much-needed sense of control, independence and individuality. Even very young students benefit from having options. It can be as simple as letting them select their own book for free reading time, or deciding on the order in which to complete several tasks. For older students, selecting their own topic for a project not only keeps them motivated, it creates more personal accountability.

A little freedom of choice could also deter some power struggle behavior issues, ultimately creating a more positive classroom community.

Make it relevant. According to, around 7,200 students drop out of high school each day, or about 1.3 million a year. Studies show that students lack motivation to stay in school when they fail to see the connection between what they are studying and how it will prepare them for the future. They need to see the relevance of academic content to their world. This is especially important for middle school students, who tend to see everything through “me, me, me” glasses.

Use current events and famous people to encourage students to make connections to the world.

Focus more on progress and less on grades. Students need different opportunities to showcase their learning. If you continue to use the same assessments for all students, some will never experience success and will ultimately lose motivation. Create lessons and assessments that focus more on mastery and progress rather than percentages and grades. Students need to take risks, ask questions, and know that mistakes are acceptable. 

Give students small tasks to accomplish. Assignments should be challenging, but not so difficult that they frustrate students. If they feel overwhelmed by a task, or never experience success, they won’t be motivated. Small assignments give students a sense of accomplishment. They also create formative assessments for you to truly see student progress and difficulties.

Praise often. Give praise freely, both individually and to the class as a whole to build confidence. It can be for something small, like a descriptive sentence from an essay. Find something to compliment. Reluctant students will be more willing to work as they gain confidence.

Provide feedback promptly and be sure it is constructive. Avoid harsh criticism and sarcasm. Teach students how to appropriately give feedback, critique and compliment each other.

Keep them active. In Tools for Teaching, Gross Davis writes, “Students learn by doing, making, designing, creating, solving. Passivity dampens students’ motivation and curiosity.” Cooperative learning keeps students motivated and involved. Include games, partner and group work, movement activities, and stations in your teaching. These should be included weekly, not just once in a while. Kagan Publishing and Professional Development offers fun and useful workshops and materials to implement active student learning.

Incorporate activities aimed at multiple intelligences. Teaching to multiple intelligences is not only beneficial for students, it also creates a more fun and creative classroom. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences recognizes eight types of intelligence: spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.

Consider surveying students about their interests, and try to plan lessons that appeal to everyone’s intelligence style. Tapping into multiple intelligences can help students discover their talents. Playing in the band, creating an art project, or being in the school play could be the reason a student stays in school.

Take a break! We all need to do this sometimes. Students who lack motivation might simply be worn out from academic pressures or home life. Some students just need to have fun in order to stay motivated. While we don’t want to fall into a pattern of constant material rewards, there is nothing wrong with having a pizza party to celebrate completing a big project, the class doing well on the latest assessment, or a steady pattern of good behavior. The key to this type of motivation is to make it all-inclusive so student motivation is linked to a broader sense of accomplishment and community.

Break the rules. Give students the opportunity to express themselves without worrying about grammar and rules. It gets them quickly engaged, and shows them that you really care about their thoughts and opinions. Group or partner table texting is a great way to do this. Students can solve problems or respond to prompts on large chart paper using the same “language” they do for texting on the phone. If you’re like me, though, you may need them to translate what they wrote.
Safeguard your own motivation. “If you become bored or apathetic, your students will too,” notes Barbara Gross Davis. Try something new: create a game on the Smartboard, invite a guest speaker, write a play. Most schools encourage co-teaching. If your classroom door is not open to your colleagues, you’re doing a disservice to your students. Special education, ESOL and reading specialists can bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm into classrooms. We can usually connect more effectively with students in smaller, more relaxed settings, and can often help better understand a student’s lack of motivation.

Motivating students is yet another challenge in our daily teaching lives. For just a few minutes, try to put away the pressures of standardized testing, No Child Left Behind and staff meetings, and really connect with your students. Design lessons and assessments that are fair, fun and challenging. Use group and pair work to help students motivate each other. Give students the opportunity to discover their learning styles by including art, music and movement in your classroom.

Bring a little of your interests, personality and enthusiasm into your teaching, and students are sure to catch on.

Amy I. Bloom, a member of the Fairfax Education Association, is an ESOL teacher currently on maternity leave. She writes about education, motherhood and life in Washington, D.C. on her blog,


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