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How to Motivate Students: Three Environments

Jordan Catapano

Why do students learn? What drives them to increase their knowledge and abilities? Or what motivates them to resist learning altogether? Students respond to a varying array of patterns that push them toward or away from learning-oriented behaviors.

As educators, part of our responsibility is to ensure we design a learning environment that emphasizes the right motivations. When we realize how to motivate students, then students are more likely to take a stronger interest in their learning as well as to succeed over the long term. So we want to take time to make sure that we understand the three main patterns of how to motivate students, and how we can make adjustments to our classrooms to maximize student intrinsic motivation.

How to Motivate Students: Patterns

What drives students to behave toward academics the way that they do? Take a look at these three motivating factors and see if they help define the general ways students think of themselves and their approach to learning.

Fixed Ability

Students might think of themselves in terms of “Fixed” qualities – that is, they believe that as smart as they are today is as smart as they’ll ever be. They might be able to learn a new fact or skill, but there are strong limitations in terms of what they’ll be able to achieve in particular areas.

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To think of this, think of the student who swears she’s “Just not a math person.” By making this statement about herself, such a student seems to believe that she just cannot do math well. The danger with this conceptualization, of course, is that this presupposes the fact that no matter how much work the student puts in, they cannot change their fixed qualities. The logical conclusion, therefore, would be not to put much effort in at all.

The fixed growth student is likely to attribute errors to a lack of ability; they’re likely to have increased levels of anxiety and decreased levels of engagement. Why? Because if that student tries and fails, then their failure reaffirms their innate lack of ability. Not engaging with learning is a form of self-protection; if no attempts are made, then no failure is endured.

This could even be true for students who are “Smart.” Even if they’ve proven they’re capable of achieving at certain levels, they still might fear failing, as failure would offer proof that their perception of themselves as “Smart” is falsely attributed. Students with a fixed ability mindset will demonstrate lower levels of achievement and are more likely to give up at the first sign of difficulty.


The second type of motivational factor is competition; or put in other words, students engaging for the sake of out-performing their peers. These students will heavily engage in learning tasks, but not for the right reason. Instead of focusing on learning, they are preoccupied with how well they measure up to others. They define their own competency by comparing themselves with others’ performance. If they do well compared to others, then they feel like they’ve achieved. If they do poorly compared to others, they feel like they’ve lost something.

For the competition-oriented student, it’s all about finding self-worth by achieving superiority and recognition from others. These students are likely to feel anxiety during assessments, due to their preoccupation with maintaining their “I’m-so-smarter-than-everyone-else” reputation. They’re also less likely to ask for help when they genuinely need it. Asking for help, after all, means that they don’t know something, and this type of student thrives off of others thinking they know everything.

I remember do a “Mad Minute” of math in 3rd grade. We were given 60 seconds to solve 30 multiplication problems, and if we got them all correct we got a sticker. I loved pasting my sticker to the class poster; I loved having more stickers than anyone else. When I didn’t get them all correct, I’d try to cover over my mistake or blame it on some external factor. Like many students in this motivational mindset, I didn’t care about learning so much as about winning. While I got good grades, my attitude toward learning was rather off-center.


But there is a third motivation mindset that students can possess. This third category is mastery learning, which means that the students are focused on genuinely learning new knowledge and skills. They don’t enjoy learning because they see themselves as “Smart” or because they feel superior. Instead, they simply believe they can learn and possess the internal motivation to make that learning happen.

These students are drawn toward learning, improvement, challenge, and progress. They see failure as something to learn from, and attribute failures to a lack of their effort or understanding rather than a fixed status or some external element. While other motivational mindsets lead students to shut down in the face of challenges, students with a mastery mentality see challenges as an opportunity to grow, even if they don’t get it right the first time.

Students with this mindset are also more likely to have positive feelings toward school, coupled with increased engagement and resiliency. These students come prepared to learn, and they work hard until they do.

Helping Facilitate the Right Environment

At first glance it might appear that the motivation a student has is dependent on that student. However, how a student approaches learning is also largely dependent on the type of environment we teachers set up in our classroom. We may not always realize it, but we the way we organize our classroom and its functions contributes heavily to facilitate one motivational mindset or another.

Obviously, we want students to possess the mastery mindset and avoid the other two. So how do we get there? Here are a few ideas:

Avoid or downplay competition. Although competition and gamification can prove highly engaging, it tends to overemphasize students’ tendency to compare themselves to others. It also encourages other elements we don’t normally associate with mastery learning, such as speed, aggression, and prizes.

Encourage growth. Coach students to perceive themselves as individuals who can learn and grow if they put forth effort. Discourage their use of fixed-mindset phrases. Give students opportunity to reflect on their efforts, make up for their mistakes, and track their personal progress.

Have a reason. Make sure that you always provide students with meaningful tasks. You should be sure to explain the reasons for spending time on any skill or knowledge so that students see there is significance for putting effort toward the outcome.

Foster positivity. Emphasize happiness, respect, and positivity in your classroom. Students are most likely to engage in an environment where they feel safe and understood. Take time to build positive relationships with each of your students, and help them to do the same with one another. In such an atmosphere, mistakes, new ideas, and risks are more likely to happen and positively direct learning.

Recognize and reward effort. While students are often focused on outcomes, as teachers we want to help students recognize the efforts that went into their work. Praise students for the individual efforts they put towards their learning, and this will increase the likelihood of them displaying these efforts again.

Include students in the process. Make students partners in their own learning by including them as active participants in the lesson, homework, and assessment processes. Give them authority to choose or design elements they’d like to focus on. Allow them to see their results and feedback, and to reflect on their own learning.

No permission to fail. If students know that failure is not an option, then they’ll stop failing. At times reluctant learners will resist learning tasks because they don’t want to give proof of their inferior capacity. But since real learning – as we know – is a result of effort, focus on student efforts, penalize less for risks or incorrectness, and demand that students at least try – even badly – on every task you have.

As we reflect on what kind of motivations drive the school-oriented behaviors of students, we recognize that we possess a great deal of influence on how students see school. We can facilitate an environment that promotes a fixed or competition mindset, or we can facilitate an environment that promotes mastery learning. Often, it comes down to our own beliefs about students. If we believe they can learn and grow, then we can definitely produce the right elements in our classroom that serve this perception.

How do you help promote mastery learning in your classroom? Share your ideas with our TeachHUB 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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