Seven Strategies to Keep Students Motivated All Year Long

Keeping a journal with goals and reflections can help students see their progress over the year. That in turn helps them stay motivated. (iStock/Ridofranz)

By Kendal Rolley

Looking around my seventh-grade Language Arts classroom at the start of another school year, I saw the same range of reactions that we are all familiar with as teachers. Some students were obviously eager to get started, returning from the break with a desire to start the year off in a positive way. Others were less confident, and had evidently approached the end of the summer holiday with a sense of dread.

Throughout the school year, I know I can expect some students to slowly lose motivation. I know when they get disappointing grades, they’ll be discouraged. And some will quietly decide that the material is too difficult, or not worth the effort, or that they generally lack the fundamental skills to keep up. As their teacher, I want to stop those thoughts early. But I’ve noticed that students often can’t see their own progress the way I can as their teacher. They often have unrealistic notions of what their growth should look like.

To try to help students see what I see, I started checking in with students one-on-one throughout the year. Using research from Zoltan Dӧrnyei, who specializes in motivation to learn second languages, I developed some practical motivational strategies that helped my students reflect on their own work and learning environments.

1. The Classroom Environment

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It’s easy to overlook the most important step in any teaching strategy: build a positive class culture. When I take the time to set a solid, positive learning foundation, I find it smoothes the way for other interventions.

When classroom rules are negotiated with students they feel a greater sense of ownership and commitment toward them. Often these "rule-setting" sessions at the start of the year generate fairly similar (and effective) sets of rules. A set of class rules may look as follows:

  • We should listen to each other
  • We should try not to hurt each other, verbally or physically
  • We should respect each other’s ideas and values
  • We shouldn’t make fun of each other’s learning / it’s OK to make mistakes
  • We should help each other

Student-negotiated consequences for breaking these rules, and ensuring they are followed throughout the year, can also reinforce a cohesive and positive learning environment. Students are more likely to meet expectations and interact positively with others when they’ve agreed on both the rules and consequences.

I’ve also had success in allowing students to set (realistic) rules for me as their teacher, such as “always be willing to help” and “make sure our tests are fair.”

The teacher also has an obligation in a motivation-sensitive teaching approach to make the learning interesting to students. I try to do that by changing up the teaching style and materials, making content and activities fun and relevant to learners, showing enthusiasm for my subject, and being available to offer help.

2. Strategies to Build Commitment

There are a few ways I help students preserve (and potentially increase) their commitment to the goals they set for themselves.

The first step is to help students set appropriate goals. This works best if students make goals based on the S.M.A.R.T principles (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Specific). I then have them create a learning journal where they record both the goals and their progress. A good stimulus question may be, "What did you learn this week?"

Second, I provide short written feedback on a regular basis. I encourage students to reflect positively on their own progress, and to not discuss grades wherever possible, since the point is to hold themselves to their own standards.

Third, I try to hold verbal feedback sessions several times a year. A natural time to check in is prior to parent-teacher meetings. These one-on-one meetings with students are a chance for a positive self-reflection and discussion about the student’s progress over a longer period of time.

3. Metacognitive Strategies

Students are going to get distracted at some point during the school year, and many procrastinate. But they may not have a lot of practice noticing when they start to get off task. To help them gain awareness, have them record examples of things that have interrupted their learning, both inside and outside the classroom. This can take place in their learning journals. Maybe they didn’t do their homework because a favorite show was on or they wasted their studying time on social media. Discuss the various choices implicit in those distractions, and focus on positive and realistic solutions, like choosing to watch the show later as a reward for task completion.

Use further student examples in feedback sessions throughout the year, where students can share strategies they’ve developed on their own for dealing with distractions. Students are often more receptive to this advice when it comes from a peer.

4. Strategies to Boost Student Interest

Students are more motivated by their schoolwork when it is interesting. Offering students choice is a common way of building interest, along with the quality and relevance of learning materials.

Teachers may also allow students to negotiate twists on a task that makes it more interesting to them, while still working toward the learning outcomes of the lesson.

But not every learning goal will naturally pique students’ interests, a fact worth acknowledging openly. Ask students to reflect on tasks they find uninteresting in their learning journal to help them identify patterns in these moments and to react in a positive way. The journal entries are also great feedback for the teacher on how to make content more engaging for students.

5. Strategies to Handle Negative Emotions

At the start of the school year, I discuss with my students how different moods and emotions help or hurt learning. I’ve found students often aren’t aware of how much their emotions affect their schoolwork. Then, I ask students to create a positive "mantra" they can refer back to if feeling unmotivated or anxious.

Teachers can also prompt students to reflect on their moods when evaluating how they are progressing toward their goals, and note these observations in their learning journals. For example, a student might write: "I didn't learn much new vocabulary this week. I was feeling angry and I couldn't focus." Once the teacher knows what’s going on in the emotional lives of students it’s easier to offer targeted advice on strategies to ensure learning continues, even when a student is in a heightened emotional state.

6. Strategies to Build Positive Learning Environments

Ask students to respond to the questions: Who do I work well with? Who don’t I work well with? Why? This helps students to evaluate the social dynamics of their classroom context. A target output might be something like: "Harriet’s a great friend, but when we are put in a group together we just end up chatting about Riverdale instead of the work." As a teacher, you can also use this information to make groups that collaborate well and work effectively toward common goals.

Creating a positive learning environment — one in which students are free to express themselves, make mistakes and effectively self-reflect — will allow the environment to be an effective place for learning.

7. Visualizing the future

According to Dörnyei, motivation for learning is partly informed by two potential future versions of yourself — the ideal self of your future, and the self that you feel you ought to become. Asking students to map these out in as much detail as possible, and discussing them (what does your ideal self look like? At minimum, what do you feel like your future self should look like?) can be very helpful in bringing this background process into the light. Discussing these selves can also be a fun activity to start off the year, with students getting down to very specific details of what their future selves eat (my ideal self eats a lot more vegetables than I currently do!), where they live, and do for fun.

Refer back to these selves throughout the year to have students track their own progress, and in the process break down long-term motivational goals into shorter ones. This is especially necessary for younger learners who often have trouble visualizing life after school.

It’s also important to allow students, in the process of reflecting on these future selves, the ability to think about what they can do if they're not meeting the benchmarks on the road to either who they want to be or feel they should be. Reinforcing the idea that it is never too late to get back on track can help prevent students from feeling they've set unattainable goals for themselves.

While it may be difficult to reach every student with every one of the strategies mentioned above, all we can do as educators is to consistently try. All these strategies are ways to help students develop their ability to consciously recognize and mindfully react to their learning experiences. Strategies like these help students to make progress toward being lifelong learners.

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Kendal Rolley is the English coordinator of a bilingual K-12 school in Hanoi, Vietnam. He conducts research on language policy and motivation in language learning, and supports TEFL professionals in the development of their classroom practice.

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