Motivating Students

September 6, 2007 at 6:53 pm (all, blogging, children, classroom management, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, friends, High School, kids, life, Middle School, Parents, principals, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke)

The Groundwork for Motivating Students

It’s the beginning of another school year, and students are excited to find out who is in their classes, what their teachers are like, and what they will learn. Many teachers find themselves overwhelmed with the heavy curriculum requirements and a sea of new faces. You may already be wondering how you can effectively motivate your students and engage them in the learning process all year long.

One of the first things we can do to motivate learners is to make sure that they become and remain comfortable in their learning environments. One way to establish comfort is by providing opportunities for classmates and teachers to get to know one another. Learners tend to work harder and take more risks when they feel they have a strong, positive relationship with their teacher and their classmates. Because there are so many learners in a classroom, it is essential that good relationships be established early. Fostering positive relationships promotes high levels of motivation between:

  • Each and every learner.
  • Each learner and the teacher.
  • Each learner and the content.

Remember that motivated learners are comfortable in their learning environments. You will be getting to know your students and they will be getting to know you and one another all year long. Establishing a comfort level is an important foundation for the process.

Read on for tips to establish and maintain a motivating learning environment.

“If you put a plant in a jar, it will take the shape of the jar. But if you allow the plant to grow freely, twenty jars might not be able to hold it”
— Duke University Coach Mike Krzyzewski

Research shows that teachers who successfully engage students incorporate activities that address students’ basic psychological and intellectual needs (Brewster & Fager, 2000).

In conducting an extensive review of research on students’ need for belonging, Osterman (2000) concluded that students’ experiences of acceptance shaped many aspects of their behavior, but that schools tend to neglect and often thwart students’ attempts to establish social interconnections.

Students’ social relationships appear to influence their academic engagement and success at school (Patrick, Anderman, & Ryan, 2002). An important part of that social environment is the degree of teacher support.

An investigation of teachers considered to be exemplary in helping students develop independence and attain high levels of academic achievement stresses the development of strong positive classroom relationships (Ayres, Sawyer, & Dinham, 2001).

 TIPS: Establish and Maintain a Motivating Learning Environment

Now that the new school year is underway, it’s a perfect time to create a motivational learning environment. The first step is making sure everyone is comfortable in the classroom. Since most classrooms and budgets are limited in terms of what furniture and surroundings we can provide, comfort for our students comes in the form of something much more important: positive relationships between all learners, learners and the teacher, and learners and the content.

Give your learners an opportunity to get to know one another. Make it creative. Skip the dull introductions where each person gives his or her name and a hobby. Instead, use one of the activities below to create connections that are memorable.

  • Ask the Teacher (elementary grades and up):
    Have students form groups of 3 or 4, and then have them write one question per group on index cards. In order to establish connections and comfort between you and your students, each group will ask you its question. Questions may include: If you could change the world, what would you change? If you had a million dollars, what would you do? You can modify the same activity and have students ask one another the same questions, or do a combination where you answer some and the students answer others. Doing so builds teacher/student as well as student/student connections and comfort levels.
  • What Do You Like? (middle school and up):
    Have students share one thing they like and one thing they don’t like. This activity makes quick connections and provides an opportunity for everyone to share. You may learn some important information about your students. Be sure that you participate as well. Remember that the connections students make with you as well as one another are part of a comfortable and motivating environment.
  • Telephone (junior high and up):
    This activity can improve listening skills. Share a story stem, such as “I read a story about a scientist named Ivan Ivanovich Vetakovski, who created a drug that makes people immortal.” Whisper the stem to one student, and have that student whisper the story to another. Each student whispers to the next student until everyone has had a chance to whisper and hear. The final student shares the story aloud. Share the original story stem, then ask different students what they heard when the stem was whispered to them. You can find out what different students think is important by what they heard from those who went before them. You can even make the sentence stem content specific, so students start making comfortable and fun connections to what they will learn.
  • Coat of Arms (high school):
    Have learners create a wordless symbol of something that is significant to them and explain the significance. To promote comfort levels and team building, small groups can even design their own coats of arms to share with the class. This activity can also be modified so students create coats of arms that relate to course content.

These introductory getting-to-know-you activities are fun and provide initial connections and comfort levels. If you stop promoting connection and comfort, motivation will wane. It’s important to keep providing opportunities for students to get to know each other. Once the beginning-of-the-year administrative chores are taken care of, continue building connections between students and the content. Here are some examples and suggestions.

  • Language Arts (elementary)
    Have students print or write their names on a piece of construction paper and then think of one trait they have that begins with each letter. For instance, a student named Ben might write “baseball lover,” “milkshake fan,” and “night owl” for each of the letters in his first name. Have students share in small groups, or post their creations for everyone to see. Be sure you do one too! Another idea is to have students create acrostics of weekly vocabulary words, where each letter contains information related to the definition. For example, the vocabulary word “mammal” might have “mothers nursing their young” and “animal like a cat” for the first two letters (“m” and “a”). Working together, students will get to know one another and contribute to the group effort.
  • Language Arts (middle)
    In groups of 3 or 4, have students write poems about themselves. Each stanza must be about a different member of the group. All stanzas must make sense follow a certain rhyme scheme (ABAB, for instance). The final stanza may have to be something related to the group as a whole. You can modify this activity so it is content specific, where each group writes a poem about a topic you assign: constellations, space travel, NASA, and so on.
  • Language Arts (junior high)
    When students read a work of fiction, ask them to share aloud how they are similar to and different from characters in the work. They can share how they personally would handle different situations and why, whether they agree with reactions of certain characters, and with which character(s) they most (or least) identify. Remember that connecting to and feeling comfortable with the content make students feel more motivated to learn.
  • Language Arts (high school)
    After each unit of study, have students share (individually or in groups) which activities they enjoyed most and which they enjoyed least. Their comments may give you some direction for improving the assignments related to consecutive units and gives them a chance to share who they are as learners.
  • Math (elementary)
    Students can complete this assignment in class or at home. Have them look around for or think of 5 to 10 of their favorite things and list them. They may choose to find blue things (favorite color), books, food, videos, etc. Then they share their number one favorite thing with the class or in small groups, why it is their favorite, and rank the others. Students enjoy discovering what they have in common with and how they differ from their classmates.
  • Math (middle)
    Have individual students add up the number of letters in their first names, middle names, and last names. Put students in a group of four and give them a worksheet asking them to add up the total sum of two people’s numbers, and subtract the total sum of another two people’s numbers. Have them multiply those two results, then divide the product by the number of people in their group. You can think of many combinations to put on the worksheet. Add an element of competition by giving a prize to the team with the highest, lowest, closest to a prime, or otherwise-designated number(s). Students will have fun practicing their math skills through this activity, which has roots in each person’s identity.
  • Math (junior high)
    Ask groups of students to come up with quiz questions. For instance, if you are studying a unit on integer addition, one group could come up with 5 questions such as (-7) + 2, (-10) + (-8), and so on. They would also create an answer key. After 5 minutes, groups pass their quizzes to another group, and each group takes the quiz. The group who created the quiz scores it, and prizes are awarded for the team with the most correct answers in the shortest time. Rather than being just a product-oriented activity (taking the quiz), this allows process-oriented students (those who enjoyed creating the quiz) to play a strong role as well.
  • Math (high school)
    Put students in groups to play hangman. Instead of using letters, use numbers that students have to convert to letters (where A=1, B=2, and so on). Give them calculus problems to solve where the result is a number/letter for hangman. For instance, if y equals the square root of (x-3), and students determine that y=2, then 2 corresponds to the letter B. Then students have to decide if B is a letter in the hangman puzzle. Groups can create their own puzzles or you can provide handouts.


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