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3 Secrets to Motivating Students

Outside the Box Teaching Ideas

Among the many titles I bear, that of cheerleader is often the most challenging. Entering the classroom day after day with a great enthusiasm, a smile from ear to ear, a little extra pep in my step, and pom poms raised high takes practice. We all have those less than great moments but I have learned over the years, that the more excited I become about learning, the more my students will be as well. The key is motivation.        

Motivation is defined as “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something” (Thank you Dictionary.com). Notice the words DESIRE, WILLINGNESS, and DO SOMETHING! Those are not often words we see in great demand in the classroom. Well, at least not in an educational way. Sure they desire to talk to their friends, they are willing to goof off or have extra recess, and are always ready to do something that doesn't require work, but getting these words to apply to a new concept or skill that can be assessed takes some finesse. 

So how do I motivate my students to learn? I simply try to follow the words within the definition. That is, I create a desire to know, a willingness to try, and the opportunity to do something.

How I Create Desire

Before any lesson or new skill, a “desire to know” needs to be established. One way I like to establish this desire is to write “Did you know?” on the board and list a fact relating to the lesson. For example, I just started a unit on United States symbols/themes. To introduce the unit, I posted a “Did you know?” question on the board such as “Did you know the British captured and held prisoner a man who would later be known all around the world for a poem?” I posted a picture of the prisoner (Francis Scott Key) under my did you know question. Not only have I piqued their desire to know who he was but I also got them talking about how he looks and the time period the picture displayed. I created a desire to know. Other ways to create a desire to know:

  • Ask or post a riddle

  • Trivia questions through e-mails the night before will have students engaged

  • Pictures of people, places, or things with engaging quotes or questions

  • Music or even movement

  • What-if questions

  • Who said it questions

  • Excerpts from videos (YouTube is great for this)

  • Picture books, excerpts from great stories, or author quotes

All of these methods are great spring boards into your lesson. All it takes it a little creativity on your part to get their attention. Once you have the attention, you can move towards obtaining their willingness or, as I like to think of it, maintaining attention, to learn more.

How I obtain willingness to pay attention

I find this to be easier once I have established the desire to know. Take for example the picture of Francis Scott Key I posted under my did you know. Once the students wanted to know the answer and we had talked about the picture, I could engage them in the lesson. From this five minute introduction, I gained their attention and they were willing to continue discovering more.

Other methods of maintaining attention include:

  • Moving around the room frequently. While I am teaching I move. This has dual purposes for me, 1) I can tell who is paying attention because they are moving their eyes/heads as I move about the room and 2) it allows me to quietly settle any disturbances with a slight touch, a tap on the desk, or silencing a tapping pencil.

  • When reading, solving math problems on board, or asking questions, randomly select someone. I do this by selecting a Popsicle stick with a child's name from a jar.

  • Let them be the teacher. When you know you have had the attention of a student, to assess their understanding and keep focus in class, allow them to come and explain or be the teacher.

  • Give the students a break before moving into a new lesson or even in the middle of a longer lesson. This year I started using brain breaks (found on Pinterest) and kids love them. I can obtain their attention longer because they know they will get a chance to be a little silly for at least 2-3 minutes.

  • Pour on the drama.  Don't be afraid to be a little “theatrical” in presenting a lesson. Laugh, be silly. Let them see you having fun. (It is OK to have fun in the classroom!)

Let them do something

Allow students to take an active role in their learning. We were learning density last week and I noticed a few blank stares. I knew I was losing them. Instead of continuing, I pulled out water bottles from our recycling bin, and had the students add water from the water fountain. Since I did not tell them what we were doing, I had their undivided attention. I then brought out a container of vegetable oil and passed it around the room. I asked the students to look at both the oil and the water. Which did they think had more density (again reviewing the definition)? They expressed their thoughts and then I proceeded by allowing each to pour some oil into the water bottle, tighten the lid, and shake vigorously. The result, the oil floated on top of the water even after being mixed. What did they learn? They learned not only the definition of density but also an example they could see and touch. They gained an understanding by doing. Other ways of encouraging students to do something.

  • Allow them to engage in group discussions. Of course you may have to monitor a bit, but this allows them the need to exercise their jaw muscles.

  • Create individual or partner projects for students to enhance their learning

  • Role playing

  • Short writing assignments or journaling

  • Drawing or creative presentations

  • Use of internet and other technology

To claim all the above suggestions are easy, quick, and 100% effective methods to motivating your students, would be a false statement. Keeping students motivated especially in the world of technology and other distractions, takes work. I am always researching new creative ways to present my lessons. Some ideas work, others do not. Since each class is different, each child is different, there is no one set way. It is hit or miss. Persistence, and a willingness to try new methods, has made me more successful over the years and in the end, my students benefit. This of course is truly what motivates me.

What methods do you use to motivate your students?