Tuesday / June 18

Motivating Students to be Engaged Learners

While we may be tempted to look at underperforming students and label them as lazy, research indicates that most students lack motivation because of three fundamental factors:

  1. Students do not believe they can succeed even if they try.
  2. Students do not feel they have any control over their life choices.
  3. Students have a need to avoid failure.

Change Negative Mindsets: Be A Mind Detective

I was teaching high school and working with struggling learners. Many of my students were unmotivated, felt defeated or believed they were stupid. So, I tried a technique I learned from Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.

One of Chansky’s analogies compares OCD thoughts to junk mail. Chansky suggests teaching youth to examine their thoughts. If their thoughts are negative, then they should label the thoughts as junk mail, or as something else the child could relate to.

Having taught bullying prevention for several years, I taught youth to label negative self-talk as “bullying thoughts.” Instead, I encouraged them to look at their thoughts by suggesting that they be a “mind detective.”

I explained, “You’ve got thoughts going through your head. As a detective, determine: Are those thoughts negative? Are they positive? Are they telling you good things or bad things about yourself? If they’re telling you bad things, tell them to stop it. You are the one in control of your thoughts.”

The best way to combat negative beliefs and behaviors is to use teaching strategies that engage learners and support their experience of success in the classroom.

Teach Students to Learn How They Learn

My son was one of those children who did not want any strategies that were different from what the teachers required and the other children were doing. He used to say, “My teacher says write it out three times in cursive, so that’s what I have to do,” even though he did not learn effectively that way.

Why should he write it out three times in cursive and fail the test every week? By the fifth week, do you think my son was motivated to write it out three times in cursive? So, I came up with a compromise.

“Okay, how about you write it two times in cursive, just as the teacher wants, and I’ll negotiate with your teacher to allow you to draw the word the third time.” We printed the word on a flashcard, added a picture that represented the word and color-coded the word. We practiced five cards a day for the week before the test.

Every single time he made flashcards and practiced every day, he aced the test. Every single time he chose not to use the strategy, he failed the test. Eventually, he figured out that he needed to honor the way he learned.

Students who feel they are not capable of more need to get their power back. They need to think about how they learn, and not always try to do things the way somebody else says they should do them.

Academic Strategies that Foster Empowerment and Motivation

A classroom environment which is based on positive social relationships, while encouraging student empowerment, may be the first step toward improving student motivation and achievement. The classroom environment should not only attend to the social and emotional needs of students, but also to learner-centered teaching as a critical factor (Nichols, 2006).

Learner-centered instruction honors how students learn, utilizes teaching models that increase student engagement, and thereby increases motivation and success.

Following are some effective strategies for engaging learners and differentiating instruction.

Strategies That Support Success:

  1. Chunk tasks for students. Students who struggle in the classroom are best served by breaking assignments into manageable parts with manageable deadlines that focus on success.
  2. Offer choices in academic assignments. No matter how strict your school-district mandates are, you must ask: Are there choices we can offer? Because choices empower, motivate, and foster critical thinking (Brooks & Young, 2011; Flowerday & Schraw, 2000; Simmons & Page, 2010).
  3. Ask students what went right. Focus on what the student has learned from an exercise or an assignment as opposed to what went wrong. Most importantly, encourage students to think beyond the grade and to understand that mistakes are an opportunity for learning.
  4. Create opportunities for students to exhibit their strengths. For example, when assigning students to five groups in a high school biology class, teachers asked for five volunteers who could draw well. Now, each group had an artist to work with on the project. Students’ individual strengths were celebrated so that all had an opportunity to focus on their success and how it contributed to the team.
  5. Students need personal goals. Ask students about their goals and frequently show the connection between what they are learning in the classroom to their personal goals. Be ready to answer the question, “Why do I need this?” rather than share careers that may be meaningless to specific students. (Hallenbeck & Fleming, 2011)
  6. Energize your class. Infuse your classroom with short musical energy breaks once or twice during a class period. Set a timer for 90 seconds, and crank up some Vivaldi, Mozart, or other Baroque period pieces that play at about 60 beats per minute. Then, have students stand, stretch, move, clap, stomp, or dance to the music. (Brewer, 1995)
  7. Teach students how they learn. Allow students opportunities to study the way that they learn instead of the way you learn or way the teacher’s manual dictates.


Brewer, C. B. (1995). Music and learning: Integrating music in the classroom. Retrieved April 1, 2013, from in Education/brewer.htm

Brooks, C. F., & Young, S. L. (2011). Are Choice-Making Opportunities Needed in the Classroom ? Using Self- Determination Theory to Consider Student Motivation and Learner Empowerment. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 23(1), 48–59.

Ellis, A. (2007). Overcoming Resistance: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Integrated Approach (2nd ed.). New York, N.Y.: Springer Publishing Company.

Flowerday, T., & Schraw, G. (2000). Teacher beliefs about instructional choice: A phenomenological study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(4), 634–645.

Hallenbeck, A., & Fleming, D. (2011). Don’t you want to do better?: Implementing a goal-setting intervention in an afterschool program. Afterschool Matters, 38–48.

Hong, Z. R., Lin, H.-S., & Lawrenz, F. P. (2012). Effects of an Integrated Science and Societal Implication Intervention on Promoting Adolescents’ Positive Thinking and Emotional Perceptions in Learning Science. International Journal of Science Education.

Nichols, J. D. (2006). Empowerment and relationships: A classroom model to enhance student motivation. Learning Environments Research, 9(2), 149–161.

Oei, N. Y. L., Everaerd, W. T. A. M., Elzinga, B. M., Van Well, S., & Bermond, B. (2006). Psychosocial stress impairs working memory at high loads: An association with cortisol levels and memory retrieval. Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 9(3), 133–141.

Shohamy, D., & Adcock, R. A. (2010). Dopamine and adaptive memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(10), 464–472.

Simmons, A. M., & Page, M. (2010). Motivating Students through Power and Choice. English Journal, 100(1), 65–69.

Written by

Susan Fitzell, M. Ed has been touching lives in public schools and beyond since 1980. She has over two decades of experience identifying and meeting the needs of youth with special needs, behavioral and anger management issues, and students who experience bullying. Susan’s work focuses on building caring, inclusive school communities and helping students and teachers succeed in the inclusive classroom. Susan is a dynamic, nationally recognized presenter and educational consultant specializing in special education & Response to Intervention topics, co-teaching, bullying prevention, and adolescent anger management. She provides practical strategies to increase achievement of ALL students in ALL classrooms. Susan’s motto is, “Good for all, critical for students who learn differently.” Susan’s greatest satisfaction comes from helping teachers make a positive impact using practical, doable strategies that fuel positive, measurable results. Whether she’s doing a one day workshop or long-term consulting, Susan’s straight forward, common sense approach always yields positive results.

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