The Secret Ingredients to Catalyze Learning: Stoking Student Motivation- by guest Edcouragementor Ian Tindell

How can I get my students open to learning? As a teacher, this is one of the most crucial questions of my job. The question of motivation supersedes that of even content. It does not matter what I am trying to teach my students. If they are not motivated to learn, the content does not matter. Some students seem to be easy. These are the students who contribute actively and jump to participate as soon as the learning activities begin. If only we could clone those students. Others seem to be difficult. They zone out when you’re speaking and never seem to put in more than the bare minimum of effort, if even that. These are the ones that can keep a teacher up at night. So how do we get these students engaged? How do we motivate all of our students?

 Physical Environment

One of the most crucial decisions you can make before your students even step in the room is the desk arrangement. Do you prefer columns and rows? For many teachers, this is their natural inclination and it makes sense because if students are all faced one direction and on their own little “island,” they will be less easily distracted.  As a principle of motivation, however, I believe creating groupings can be more dynamic. First, I believe it promotes natural collaboration. Do I want my students listening to what I say? Of course. But I have found that one of the best ways for students to process information is to talk it over and collaborate with their peers and I’ve always felt the island effect makes this more difficult. 

Creating desk groupings at the beginning of the year is always a crapshoot, so you have to be flexible and adaptive if one of your early groupings clearly does not work. Once you get to know the students, however, groupings can be much more purposeful. Will a student be more motivated if they are sitting at a table group with a key friend or do they need a group that will settle them down? Will a student who is struggling be motivated by sitting next to a student who is not? Strategic table groupings can produce remarkable results. 

Emotional Environment

Even more important than the physical environment you create is the emotional one. Do your students feel supported? Are you able to connect with them? A student in a connected,  supportive environment is more likely to thrive. While there are many ways to achieve this, I’m going to focus on two easy to implement strategies centered on beginning class. 

The daily transition into class is probably the most important five minutes of a teacher’s day. This is when you set the tone and tenor that you hope the rest of the day will mirror. In every class I teach, no matter the grade level or subject, I always begin with a “transition challenge.” In principle, it functions the same as “bell work,” which is making sure that when the students come into the classroom, they immediately have something they can work on. I’ve done bell work directly tied to the curriculum and it has worked well. If you have a shorter class (50 minutes or so) then this is a great place to start. My classes are on the longer side, however, (70 minutes) and I’ve discovered that the transition challenge works even better as a source of emotional motivation. Transition challenges are fun. They’re rebus puzzles or anagrams or riddles or lists (how many states don’t contain the letter ‘a’?), etc. I have a variety that I pull from and I rotate them around so that I don’t do the same type of puzzle back to back. My students love starting class this way. Not only does it immediately focus them and get them critically thinking, but they have a chance to start with something fun. It might seem odd to say that having fun is an emotional motivator but doing activities such as these provide a way for students to connect with the classroom environment in ways they might not otherwise. What kind of environment are you creating? If fun is part of that equation then your students will more readily emotionally connect with you as an educator as well as the course as a whole. 

After the transition challenge, we always do a moment of reflection. At the beginning of the year, I have students respond to a prompt by writing something on a notecard. The first prompt was what they were hopeful for as we entered a new school year. Another prompt was for them to find a meaningful quote. Most recently, my students had to write something they liked about themselves. When we get to the moment of reflection, I choose one of the previously written cards and the student who wrote the card has to stand up and read it aloud to the class. This can be a little scary for some kids, especially at the beginning of the year, but I’ve found that as the year has gone on, many of the students actually look forward to reading their cards. As the spotlight is on them for a moment, I take the time to ask them questions about what they read. One of my students recently said that the thing he liked most about himself was the fact that he was athletic. So I asked him what sports he plays. This led to a mini discussion about football, how he wants to try out for the high school team next year, and that he really wants to be a running back. This is a student who typically does not speak much in class. Yet in this moment, I got him to speak about himself and demonstrated that I cared about who he was outside of his ability to complete assignments for my class. 

These two transition techniques are rather simple but they are effective. By getting the students to start with something fun and putting aside a moment to learn about who my students are as people, I’ve created an environment in which the students can feel connected emotionally. By hooking them before we’ve even started to discuss content, I’ve already motivated them to listen to what I have to say. 

A Student-Centered Approach

There is no greater way to motivate your students than to provide them with voice and choice within your classroom. While this can take on many forms, I’ll keep my focus on one of the most simple: asking questions. In one form or another, the standard practice of many teachers is to assign questions that students have to answer. Teachers probably do this at every grade level and in virtually every subject. And, sometimes, this is absolutely the necessary way to go. Often, however, I like to flip this technique on its head and take the student-centered approach. 

Ok, assign the reading, sure, but instead of assigning questions for the students to respond to, their assignment here is to ask the questions and provide the answers themselves. The first time I ever give this assignment to my students, they’re equal parts blown away and confused. “You mean, we can ask whatever questions we want?” As a teacher, it actually makes a lot of sense. If I teach 6th graders about ancient Egypt, what do I really want the long term result to be? Do I want them to remember Queen Hatshepsut and why her reign was unique? At the moment, sure, but long term? There will come a point in their lives where that bit of knowledge will be rather useless. As a history teacher, I have to admit that point will probably come sooner than I would like. Maybe even tomorrow. But what if I taught my students to be critical thinkers? What if I taught them to ask questions while they read? That, I would argue, is far more valuable and long lasting than any particular fact. “You mean, we can ask whatever questions we want?” Yes, that’s exactly the idea.

Naturally, the next instinct is always, “so we can just ask easy questions then?” Ah, there it is, the loophole. I haven’t motivated my students to properly use this technique yet. In order to motivate them to do it well, first, it’s always a good idea to demonstrate the difference between a good question and a poor question. Provide your students with a small reading sample on the board and follow it with two questions. Which question is the better one and why? On top of this, however, I do two things. First, I make a rule – you can’t ask questions where the answer is a name or a number. Next, I say that the best answers will be chosen to go on a quiz or a test. This is when my students really perk up. Now they know they have to hit a certain quality and, if they do, the test is going to be way easier for them. One of the great things I’ve discovered using this technique is a pattern often emerges among the answers, many of the students asking generally the same things. This clues me into what they’re focusing on and it allows me to generate a more meaningful assessment. If they seem to be skipping over something I want them to focus on? Great! Now I can adapt future lessons accordingly because of the student feedback I’ve already gotten about the effectiveness of the text. Overall, I have found this technique to motivate my students to read and respond to text in a much more natural and meaningful way as they become an active participant in their own learning. 

In Summary

Motivating students can sometimes seem like an impossible challenge. If they don’t already care about what I have to say, how can I ever get them to come around? Thoughtful seating arrangements, creating personal connections, and a student-centered approach are great places to start. These techniques are not exclusive, however, and they are certainly not exhaustive. Be critical of your approach. Be open to trying things differently or admitting that one approach might not be working at all. The more you ask questions and experiment, the more likely you’ll find the right fit between you and your students. Remember that you should never start by asking “what am I teaching my students?” Start with “how and why?”

Guest Edcouragementor Ian Tindell has over a decade of experience working with many different types of students throughout the greater Los Angeles area. As an AmeriCorps member straight out of college, Ian worked at a K-8 school in South Central, which was his introduction to the world of education. Later, Ian became a lead Humanities teacher working with twice-exceptional students for 8.5 years at Bridges Academy where he was also the head cross country and track coach. He has a teaching credential in English and a Master’s Degree in Education. He currently teaches Social Studies at Chaminade College Preparatory Middle School in Chatsworth, CA while raising two young boys of his own with his lovely wife. 


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