Motivation in the Classroom

Last Updated: 10 Jan 2022
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One of the most difficult tasks an educator faces is motivating students. What exactly is it that makes a student want to learn? Why are some students easily motivated while other students must be coaxed to perform tasks that seem simple? A teacher has to ask these questions about each individual student in his or her class, and usually starts to search for the answers within the first few days of meeting their students. It is important for an educator to have a working definition of motivation if they plan on implementing motivational techniques in their classroom.

According to Eric Jensen (2005), author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, motivation is, “arousal and drive. Arousal suggests orientation towards a goal, and drive is caring enough to do something about achieving the goal” (p. 102). Jensen suggests that some students will be intrinsically motivated and require very little push to succeed. He also makes it clear that there are many students with which an educator will have to work in order to build that intrinsic motivation. Ultimately, success in the classroom can be formed in many different ways, but there are a few points that are absolutely necessary.

Setting high expectations for your students is essential. Making sure that you know your students and cater to each individual child is also pertinent. Also, identifying outside factors that may cause success or a lack of success will be very important. The autonomy that a teacher shows his or her students is extremely important to success within the classroom. A student should be able to feel like what they do or say is taken into account by the teacher. This does not mean that the teacher will change the way they do things, but they will take into account the feelings and opinions of their students.

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This adds to the students feelings of self worth. In an article by Patricia Hardre (2003), A motivational model of rural students' intentions to persist in, versus drop out of, high school, she surveyed students asking them to rate the importance of certain qualities. Questions like, “My teachers provide me with choices and options,” and “My teachers try to understand how I see things before they suggest to me how they would handle a particular situation,” scored very highly and are viewed by the students as the most important aspect of a well rounded teacher (p.351).

Providing a child with multiple ways to come to an answer will not only encourage the child, it will show them that you are interested in their success and have high expectations for them. Allison Ryan’s article, The classroom social environment and changes in adolescents' motivation and engagement during middle school, basically promotes the same ideas. She states that, “students' perceptions of teacher support and the teacher as promoting interaction and mutual respect were related to positive changes in motivation and engagement” (p.451).

The perception of a student about his or her teacher is critical, and will play a major role in whether or not the child is successful. The expectations that an educator places on their students will in many ways shape the way the class will learn from the first day until the last. A strong teacher is one that will provide the students with discipline as well as compassion. He or she will be a leader, but not afraid to listen and understand the needs of the students and of course adapt to those specific needs when applicable.

These characteristics are very important, but what will ultimately lead to success is the teacher’s ability to motivate. We know how capable children are, and we know that their capabilities are almost endless. Often times what they are missing is leadership, direction, and someone telling them “I believe in you”. Isaac Friedman (2011) in his article, Teachers' role-expectations: Altruism, narcissism, patemalistic altruism, and benevolent narcissism, explains that teachers must use what he calls “benevolent narcissism” in their classroom.

Freidman explains “benevolent narcissism” as the capacity of an educator to have such high expectations of their students that they almost come off as cocky (p. 19). Having such a positive attitude will ultimately build a child’s self worth and make them feel supported and believed in. This is also explained in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As Robert E. Slavin (2012) explains, “Self esteem is critical to physical and psychological well-being” (p. 288).

However, a child can be quick to doubt themselves if they feel like they have no one who believes in them. When perceived self-efficacy is high, more ambitious challenges are pursued, and commitments to lofty goals are made. When self-efficacy is low, the child will see failure as the most likely outcome of whatever obstacle they may face. Lisa Legault (2006) in her study, Why do high school students lack motivation in the classroom, explains that perceived failure is the single greatest barrier for a child to overcome if he or she hopes to be successful.

She goes on to say that even students who do believe in their abilities sometimes have a difficult time believing that they will have the prowess to maintain the effort needed to complete an assignment or achieve in the classroom (p. 579). Furthermore, Johnmarshall Reeve (2003), author of the article Testing models of the experience of self-determination in intrinsic motivation and the conundrum of choice teaches that a child needs to feel “a sense of unpressured willingness to engage in the activity” (p. 380). This is completely relatable and understandable.

Students are often faced with tasks that seem daunting to them, and without a support system it would be very easy to see how a child could lose belief in his or her ability to face a challenge. That is why it is so important to put each student on the same playing field. In this way no student will feel inferior, but you will still be able to make sure each student is also taught to his or her specific needs. Students know when they are treated differently. They can absolutely tell whether or not their teacher is playing favorites in the classroom.

It is excruciatingly painful to observe a classroom where a teacher has made some students feel special and others have been made to feel incompetent. Those students who no longer feel they have a place within the classroom are the ones with their heads down, or talking constantly to their peers, or they may even stop showing up altogether. In an article by Kristen Elmore (2012), If ‘we’ can succeed, ‘I’ can too: Identity-based motivation and gender in the classroom, she talks about the rapid decline in success of males within the classroom as opposed to their female counterparts.

She talks about “identity-based motivation” and explains that male students are being stigmatized by their teachers. The male students believe that they need to be strong, and are made to feel like they should not require as much motivation as their female classmates in order to complete the same tasks (p. 181). This is an extremely unfortunate finding. By this point our educators should know that gender plays virtually no role in the intrinsic motivation of our students.

Of course there may be plenty of young men and women that don’t need to be pushed in order for them to succeed, but the majority of them do need that extra push. There is no place for gender bias within our school systems. For an educator, one of the most important aspects of maintaining a thriving classroom is keeping your students engaged. When a student loses interest it becomes extremely difficult for them to be successful. In her article, Engagement and disaffection in the classroom: Part of a larger motivational dynamic, Ellen Skinner (2008) talks about the difficulty many teachers have with motivating their students.

One of the main problems is that teachers are still trying to lecture at students and expect them to retain vast amounts of facts, instead of having them search for the correct answers. She maintains that when you require your students to sift through material and put together the pertinent information themselves, they are much more likely to hold on to that information. She also claims that this higher level learning will give the student more confidence because they will believe that the teacher has faith in them to learn the material (p. 772).

Likewise, Xiaoying Wu (2013), author of Enhancing motivation and engagement through collaborative discussion, explains how important collaboration is in the classroom. Students enjoy working in groups or as a class in order to come to certain conclusions (p. 624). Working with their peers will especially help those students who need an extra push to succeed. Students gain motivation by working with other students that can push them to do better. An intentional teacher knows that all students are motivated. He or she also knows that this motivation is not the same level for each student.

The intentional teacher strives to keep high the drive of the already motivated student, and also strives to bring out the motivation of the student that needs coaxing in order to succeed. They do this by having lesson plans that help students make sense of the material, which allows the student to take pride in their own accomplishments. A teacher is directly responsible for the motivation of his or her students, and will in many ways shape the way those students approach tasks throughout the rest of their lives.

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Motivation in the Classroom. (2016, Sep 01). Retrieved from

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