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How to Motivate Students through the Dead of Winter

Jordan Catapano

Do the cold, dark days have your students down? Does it seem like everyone – including yourself – has just a little less of a spring in their step? Does the “middle of the year” mean that teaching and learning has become a drag?

What happened to that fresh, excited feeling from the start of the school year, and how do we get it back? Here are 12 strategies to motivate students through the darkest days of winter.

1. Change it up. Let the unexpected become the expected. Patterns and routines can be very helpful with student learning. However, when students begin heavily anticipating what they’ll be doing, part of them goes on “autopilot” and less effort is required from them. Try to keep students “on their toes.” Let them walk into the classroom and see the desks rearranged or all the wall decorations taken down. Let them feel uncomfortable for a few moments to adjust to a new, fresh kind of approach that will, by the end, invigorate them.

2. Let students take control. Teachers drive the curriculum because they’re the experts on what students should know. But offer opportunities for students to “take control of the classroom” and set the agenda. They can decide on a party or reward day, select the next topic to learn from a provided list, or even bring in their own ideas, possessions, or videos related to the class topic. Empower them to “own” their educational environment.

3. Incorporate filming and videos. Nothing says “This is interesting” like a video clip. Many students can consume hours of videos, but can hardly pay attention to a teacher for more than a few minutes. Show films and clips as illustrations, rewards, or part of your curriculum. You can even have students produce and show their own films, too (complete with the outtakes reel, of course).

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4. Eyes on the prize. It has often been said, “It’s not what you’re working on, it’s what you’re working toward.” Remind students of the big picture of what they’re working toward. Make the goals of the class big, visible, colorful, and something that’s actually worthwhile for the students. When they see what they’re working toward, what they’re working on doesn’t seem like a problem anymore.

5. Self-reflection. Walk students through some structured self-reflection. Talk about what the class has tried to teach so far; talk about what their personal goals are. Have students reflect on how they’ve been doing and what they can do better with during the rest of the year.

6. Gamification. Little stirs the spirit as much as good old-fashioned competition and game challenges. Take the ordinary lessons you might have and give them a new game-like spin. For some reason, students love to compete against one another and themselves. If we can harness this motivation to “win” with the objective to “learn,” there are all kinds of possibilities for achievement.

7. Increase one-on-one time. Students work for the teachers they feel like them. Let your students know you care about each and every one of them by spending more direct face-to-face time with them individually. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time – just enough to let them know you’re thinking about them. You can do this formally with conferences, or informally with greetings, check-ins and casual conversations.

8. Increase student choice. In addition to giving students more control over their educational environment, also let them have more options regarding what they get to learn and do. Instead of giving the whole class an assigned reading, let them choose between three approved stories. Instead of asking them to learn about one angle of history, let them choose between four important events or people to study. Get the idea?

9. Application-based learning. Learning for the sake of passing a test is boring. The facts are immediately forgotten after the test is over. What was the point of the learning in the first place? Instead of strictly sticking students’ noses in books, assignments, and tests, give them something hands-on, too. Let students see that their work actually has relevance towards a tangible project that can be applied in the real world.

10. Praise successes like they won the Superbowl. Students thrive off of positive reinforcement. So celebrate even those smallest of successes like they just earned a Nobel Prize. They’ll feel so good that they can’t wait to do even better on the next task.

11. Get out of those desks. Desks are confining, routine, uncomfortable. While they are necessary for many instructional scenarios, ditch the desks when you can. Students won’t associate the learning they’re doing with the confining, routine, or uncomfortable setting anymore. Moving around the room and incorporating kinesthetic activities motivates the body and the mind.

12. Challenge them with who they are. Students like to have their identities questioned, pushed and challenged. They like ideas that make them take a second look at something they took for granted. Use stimulating, relatable topics to push them to critically consider their life. This makes learning bear a strong relevance to their lives and motivates them to actually think through important issues.

We start the year with a burst of energy, and end the year on a similar high note. But what do we do in between when the days seem to drag by and the weather dampens our spirits? The halfway point of the year is the perfect time to reinvigorate the classroom. Change up the pace and the expectations to show students that now is when the real learning happens!

Which motivators above will you use? What has worked for you to motivate students? Tell us about your motivation tricks in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com