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Helping Students Become Motivated Learners

Fundamentally, the process of motivation stems from stimulation, which in turn is followed by an emotional reaction that leads to a specific behavioral response. In the classroom, if a student's behavior is regarded as desirable and is rewarded, the positive reinforcement stimulates the student to repeat the desirable behavior. Conversely, if a student's behavior is regarded as undesirable and the individual receives a response with a negative undertone, demotivation results. Furthermore, anxiety and frustration often result if behavior thought to be positive does not lead to proper recognition, reinforcement and reward.

Basically, motivations stems from unsatisfied needs. However, it must be understood that individuals are motivated through a wide variety of needs. Some people are highly motivated by money, others by power, and other by praise. Since teachers are not usually in a position to offer students money or power, the focus here will be on praise. It should also be noted that some people are self-motivated and perform because they like challenge and want to perform. While educators can't make or teach students to be self-motivated, they can encourage and promote this highly desirable personal trait. Generally, students will show some self-motivation if they (1) know what is expected of them, (2) think the effort is worthwhile, and (3) feel they will benefit through effective performance.

Watch what you say

Some teachers feel that motivating students is really not one of their job responsibilities. However, whether they like it or not, students are expecting and collecting feedback from their instructors. Teachers need to be very aware of impact that their verbal comments and nonverbal body language have on their students' motivation level. Below are some tips for being a motivator and not a demotivator.

Things to do

Show honest appreciation. When teachers use "I statements" to convey their honest appreciation about a student, the teacher is communicating personal appreciation, rather than using a mechanical or an exaggerated response. Below are some examples of honest appreciation."

  • "I appreciate that."
  • "I like the way you said that."
  • "Thank you very much for that."
  • "I sure like your taking that risk."

Communicate empathetic acceptance or understanding. Because students will often make incorrect responses, it is up to the teacher to respond without discouraging the student from being willing to take risks and attempting to problem solve. "I'm with you" statements communicate an empathetic acceptance or understanding of what a student has experienced or what they are trying to communicate. This communicates that the student is not alone, and the teacher appreciates their attempt to perform. Below are some good examples of "I'm with you":

  • "I might make that same mistake."
  • "Lots of us feel that way."
  • "I can see how you would do that."
  • "I understand why you would say that."

Provide attention without praise. This is done when a teacher simply gives time and attention to a student by listening carefully. When teachers do this, they are supporting and encouraging a student without causing the student to grow dependent on the teacher approval or praise. Below are a list of things to do when giving attention without praise:

  • Use honest appreciation or "I'm with you."
  • Use non-threatening physical touch like a pat on the arm or shaking hands.
  • Use sincere eye contact that shows you are truly listening.
  • Simply give students time so that you can listen or communicate with them about a situation.
  • Greet a student after their absence.

Use plain corrects or incorrects. Sometimes it is best to tell a student that an answer was correct or incorrect without stimulating any distracting emotion. This allows the teacher to treat the students like intelligent people who do not appreciate overstatements or exaggerations. Below is a list of some appropriate plain correct responses:

  • "Yes, that's right."
  • "Okay."
  • "Yes, that's just what I wanted."
  • "Correct."
  • "Yes, thank you."
  • "No, the correct answer is _____________."
  • "You had the first part right, but the last part was incorrect."
  • "Thank you for taking a risk to answer that, even though it was the wrong answer."

Provide praise and reward for all. Teachers must be fair in distributing their praise and all students should receive praise. Look for positive things to say about a students work even when pointing out problems or mistakes with the work. Some might receive praise for bigger accomplishments than others but even the lower performers need a regular pat on the back. Teacher should also gives praise to the class as a whole to encourage the class and also build team unity.


Too much praise can lead to a student becoming dependent on it. When a teacher's praise becomes a pleasure for the student instead of serving to motivate them, it basically becomes a addiction. The student begins to require constant praise and develops no personal initiative.

Unfairness is an issue that occurs quite frequently in many classrooms. Consciously and unconsciously teachers tend to react more positively to some students more than others. Teachers need to try to put personal differences aside and treat each student equally so that each students has the same opportunity to be motivated to learn.

Manipulation happens when teachers focus their attention on the positive behavior of a student or group of students in order to hint that a certain behavior is the most desirable. This works in some situations to motivate students to modify their behavior; yet, underneath it is really saying that it is okay to manipulate people to get what you want Below are a couple of examples:

    • "Look at how well Sally did on the assignment."
    • "I really like how well this side of the room is contributing."

Exaggeration quickly devalues honest relationships between students and teachers. Exaggerated praise includes statements such as those presented below. When these kind of statements are used repetitively, students are not encouraged to be intrinsically motivated, rather they depend on extrinsic motivation.

    • "Great answer!"
    • " Super!"
    • " Wonderful!"
    • " Sensational!"

The overall goal of teachers should be to help students develop into self-motivating learners. Students who are encouraged to become motivated lifelong learners will be more successful in and out of the classroom.


This information was adapted from an Iowa State University 245/268 curriculum and instruction (CI) class in the spring semester in 2000 and was taught by Barb Adams.

Teacher Tips

Appreciating and Valuing Diversity

Are You Really Listening?

Coaching for Success in the Classroom

Goal Setting

Developing an Interest in Science and Math

Developing Communication Skills

Developing Problem-solving Skills

Effective Discipline

Encouraging Cooperative Learning

Encouraging Creativity

Encouraging Students to Explore for Answers

Fostering Independent Thinking

Motivating Students

Overcoming the Fear of Making a Mistake

Practicing Effective Questioning


Self-Evaluation Using Video

Teaching with the Constructivist Learning Theory

Teamwork in the Classroom

There is Not Always Just One Right Answer

Understanding Different Learning Styles