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How to Motivate Students: A Few Simple Tricks

Jordan Catapano

Knowing how to motivate students lies at the heart of the education process. Inside each student is something that makes them tick; something that makes them want to engage in the process of learning. Some students come intrinsically motivated and are ready to learn. Others, however, may require a little more attention and consideration before they are ready to involve themselves in a meaningful way in the classroom. Knowing how to motivate students is one of the most important but most challenging things we do as teachers. Professors Williams and Williams shared in the Research in Higher Education Journal that, “Motivation is probably the most important factor that educators can target in order to improve learning … very little if any learning can occur unless students are motivated on a consistent basis.” So how do we learn how to motivate students, especially our reluctant ones?

Motivation is complex, as humans are rationally and emotionally complex beings. How we motivate students depends on a number of factors, and there is never one simple tried-and-true approach. While there’s no silver-bullet method for motivating reluctant learners, here are a few interesting ideas that may help change the way students look at learning.

How to Motivate Students: Ask Them an Unexpected Question

“The most effective tools for excavating people’s buried drives,” says Daniel Pink in “To Sell is Human,” “Are questions.” Pink explains how the research of Michael Pantalon from the Yale School of Medicine reveals that “Irrational questions actually motivate people better” than rational ones.

So here’s an example of what Pantalon recommends:

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  • First ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning ‘Not the least bit ready’ and 10 meaning ‘Totally ready,’ how ready are you to study?”
  • Then ask, “Why didn’t you pick a lower number?”

It’s that second question, Pantalon says, that gets students. What happens when students explain why their number isn’t higher? They start to talk about why they are ready to study, even faintly. When explaining, for example, that their 5 isn’t a 4, they articulate why on at least some level they are ready to study, leading to an increased likelihood of them actually studying.

Ask Them to Encourage Another Student

Another way to help students articulate their own reasons and feelings for why they should exhibit a productive behavior is to ask them to encourage someone else. You might say to a student you want to motivate: “Hey, I noticed student X over there seems a little distracted today. Could you talk to them and see if you can encourage them to do their best?”

This empowers your student to articulate to someone else why it’s important to focus and try her best. Instead of the teacher moralizing to a student and giving “The talk,” this technique gets students to do this for themselves. The unmotivated student is given a real responsibility, and in becoming “The responsible one” is more likely to demonstrate those behaviors they just encouraged someone else to exhibit.

This method also helps approach two students at the same time without the teacher needing to force anyone into suddenly focusing.

Direct Students to “Listen,” Not to “Share”

One subtle difference could come in the verbs you use. Usually, if students create something and we want them to show others, we ask them to “Share with your neighbor.” The verb “Share” puts pressure on the students to do the talking and be in the spotlight, and puts no responsibility on the neighbor to participate.

What if you changed that verb to “Listen”? Suddenly, students are directed to do an easy – though very important – task. Sharing still has to take place, but the pressure is off of the person sharing and on their partner(s) to pay attention. This puts a more comfortable, collaborative spin on our normal instructions and may motivate the reluctant student to better participate.

Use a Three-to-One Positivity Ratio

In research Barbara Frederickson conducted regarding emotions, she discovered that experiencing at least three positive emotions for every one negative emotion “Broadens people's minds and builds their resourcefulness in ways that help them become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine.”

When students may be reluctant to engage or may misbehave, our tendency is to react negatively. We brandish punishments and ask accusatory questions. We’re only human. But if we inject our interactions with at least three positive experiences for every negative one, students are likely to enjoy an increased feeling of positivity and engagement towards the class.

This doesn’t mean we should complement students uselessly or hesitate to call out inappropriate behaviors. Positive interactions can come in a number of forms. Instead of correcting negative behaviors, try complimenting other students’ positive behaviors out loud (“I love how Jaime is looking directly at me right now.”) A positive interaction could also be as simple as having a friendly conversation with students (“How are you today?” “What are you up to this weekend?” or “Did you see the game last night?”).

Encourage Questions

Frequently, students may feel reluctant when they don’t feel much of a connection to what’s going on. Even worse is when students ask “Why?” and we don’t have a very good answer.

Real learning begins with real questions, but often we tune out student questions for the sake of honoring the established curriculum.

One of the simplest ways to motivate students is to make your classroom a place that values student questions. Let them ask why and find out the answers. Let them think outside the box. Spark their curiosity so they see for themselves the value of learning.

When students ask an authentic question, stop your lesson and pursue the answer together. When students express curiosity, let that guide your next days or units. If students ask, “Why are we doing this?”, give them an honest answer.

What do you think of these motivational techniques? What are other simple, effective ways we can help motivate our students? Share your ideas with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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