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How to Motivate Students in Summer School

Jacqui Murray

When you have to compete with a warm sun, sandy beaches, and playful friends, motivating students in summer school can be a daunting challenge. The best first step, right after introducing yourself, is to understand why students are with you rather than with friends or playing online games. Their reasons could be to try something new, to make up for a class they failed, to get ahead of classes they must take, or something else. Their answers to this question will guide you in how you teach the class. Once you know their reasons, be honest with them on how you will help them meet their goals. Then you’ll know how to motivate students. In general terms, you want them to know you'll do your best to make their summer experience worthwhile, get them through the material, and help them pass the required exams with the grades they need.

We covered a few summer school teaching strategies in the past. This time, let's talk about best practices for how to motive students in summer school. This will help you and students get through the summer learning experience.

How to Motivate Students: Make the Class Interesting

There are a lot of ways to teach a topic that satisfy curriculum demands. For example, you can fill in worksheets, watch videos, complete group projects, or work independently. Pick an approach that is 1) different from how you teach during the school year, and 2) fits your student group.

While you're changing the approach, also change the setting. Teach class in a park, in a museum's group learning room, at a restaurant over a meal, in someone's home, or in the school auditorium. Here's the logic behind that: Students react well to change. Do you remember the Hawthorne Effect Study? Done in the 1930s (and redone in different ways many times afterward), researchers examined how different aspects of the work environment (i.e., lighting, the timing of breaks, and the length of the workday) affected employee productivity. What they found wasn't what they expected. The biggest impact on productivity came from simply paying attention to the workers and their environment. Let your summer school students experience this motivator. Change their learning ecosystem and watch how much harder they work simply because you care enough to pay attention.

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Shake Things Up With Outside the Box Assessments

There are lots of proven methods of assessment. Instead of turning to those old-fashioned approaches that scream of academics, evaluate learning in new ways. These can include short and frequent formative assessments, a scrapbook where students provide evidence of learning, a game show-type Q&A that students create and participate in, peer feedback where students evaluate the work of their classmates (and then have the opportunity to correct mistakes), warmup and exit tickets, and more. Current thinking among experts is that assessments should support learning as much as measure it. Since the entire concept of tests is contrary to the laid-back attitude of summer, there's no better time to try creative assessment approaches than summer school.

Use Disruptive Tools

Engage students in such a way that they happily shoulder the responsibility for summer learning by letting them play with cool tools. There are many disruptive tech tools that have excellent anecdotal reputations for supporting learning but haven't yet been around long enough to prove themselves to school boards and principals. Summer is a great time to try these out. This includes popular buzzword tools such as 3D printing, virtual reality, coding, robotics, and augmented reality. Some of these can be expensive, but by preplanning, you can arrange grants and even faculty training. Many schools find these tools to be fundamental to the creation of lifelong learners. You could too, starting in summer school.

Be Excited About What You're Teaching

There's nothing so addictive as attitude. When a teacher is excited about what they teach, students catch their enthusiasm. Be that teacher. Share your passion for the subject you're teaching. Let students see how much fun you have not only teaching them, but as a learner yourself. Be comfortable stretching outside the box -- it's summer, after all. Be noisy and creative and the change agent students have always wanted to meet. Along the way, teach the curriculum, collect evidence of learning, and tick off learned skills. Students will leave your class remembering you as the teacher who really cared that they learned, the one who promised to ignite a fire in their cerebral self and fulfilled that promise.

Use Time Wisely

Let students know that you value their time and commitment to going to school over the summer. Start and end classes on time. If you assign homework, make it worthwhile, not busy work. Go over the syllabus at the start of class so they know what must be covered and then don't get off topic during class time. If the school allows it, let them leave early when the day's or week's classwork is completed. They'll work harder and more attentively if they think they will be rewarded.

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There's no reason summer school must be business as usual. Try one or more of these approaches and then watch students return to the regular school year motivated, excited, and ready for what comes next on their learning journey.


Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over 100 ed-tech resources, including a K-12 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in ed-tech, master teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on ed-tech topics, contributor to NEA Today and TeachHUB, and author of the tech thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and Twenty-four Days. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.