Teaching

A Teacher Asked and Students Answered: What Motivates You to Learn?

By Arianna Prothero — June 13, 2024 3 min read
0624 student motivation hands raised prothero fs 522737859
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Like most teachers, Dani Boepple devotes a lot of mental energy to devising ways to motivate and engage her students.

Motivation is a key part of learning—especially when students take on challenging material that requires more trial and error before the light bulb goes off. But what, precisely, sparks students’ motivation can be elusive, even for the most seasoned educators.

Boepple teaches science at McDonald Middle School in the Dallas metro area, which serves mostly students from low-income families. Over the years, Boepple has honed multiple strategies and tested theories on how best to motivate adolescents to learn about everything from the movement of planets to the human impact on ocean ecosystems.

But to determine which of her tricks are most effective, Boepple recently decided to ask her students—about 150 of them—what they think she does as a teacher that is most motivating to them. Her students agreed on a list of Boepple’s best motivational strategies. Here are four key ones she shared with Education Week.

1. Dive into the data

Top of her students’ list is the deep dive into their achievement data that Boepple does with each of them. The teacher starts the year by going over students’ achievement data from previous years, discussing where they are now academically, and setting goals for where they should be by the middle and end of their school year with her.

“They said that people don’t really talk to them about their scores, they just tell them, Oh, you’re behind,’ but they don’t know what that means,” she said.

Boepple said she nurtures a growth mindset by rewarding students as they reach small goals along the way to those big ones.

2. Use rewards that leave a mark

Rewards—from stickers to pizza parties—are a tried-and-true way to coax students to perform their best.

But Boepple likes using personalized rewards that also acknowledge student success. She has a laser engraver in her classroom and for every big test her students take, if they do well enough on it, they get their name and the name of the test engraved on a wooden plaque. Boepple also decorates the plaques with engravings of stars, plants, or other designs that relate to the test material.

The plaques are displayed on a wall where students take selfies with them to share on social media. At the end of the year, students get to take their plaques home.

See also

Photo illustration of teen boy working with model.
F. Sheehan for Education Week + E+ / Getty

Boepple also makes custom “science mastery” stickers for her classes—a less expensive alternative to a laser engraver—that she gives to students when they meet their goals.

“I don’t know why, but 8th graders love stickers. You would think that’s a very elementary thing but it’s not. They love to decorate their Chromebooks and their notebooks,” Boepple said. “Then, if they get a perfect score on the exam, which is hard to do, because my exams are not easy, they get a perfect score sticker. There are a few of those floating around that are very prized.”

3. Build a store stocked with aspiration

Students in Boepple’s school wear uniforms, but they’re allowed to ditch part of their uniforms if they are wearing college or military apparel. To leverage that as a tool for motivating students, Boepple constructed something she calls the “college closet,” turning part of her classroom into a store stocked with shirts and sweatshirts bearing the names of different universities.

Students earn tickets for meeting their academic goals. They then can use those tickets to buy shirts Boepple has found from second-hand stores and through donations.

“If they wear a college shirt, they don’t have to wear a uniform shirt, so that’s the cool thing to do,” Boepple said. “They said that really helps motivate them because they can’t afford to go buy a nice college sweatshirt. They are so grateful, and they wear them every day with pride. And when you ask them, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I earned this for mastering my test number three,’ or they can tell you how they got the shirt.”

4. Don’t forget the hamster (or millipede)

Class pets are a staple in many K-12 classrooms. In her small, personal zoo that includes a hamster, turtle, snails, and a giant millipede, Boepple saw another opportunity to motivate her students: They can earn time to play with the class pets by finishing their schoolwork correctly on the first try.

“A lot of them have not held a hamster or seen a turtle up close,” Boepple said, so the pets are a special—and highly motivating—treat.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching How to Help Students Judge Fact From Fiction Around the Assassination Attempt on Trump
Conspiracy theories are almost certain to emerge on social media after a major news event, experts say.
5 min read
Image of someone reading news on their phone.
oatawa/iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion 'Magical': How One Teacher Describes a Pandemic-Recovery Moment
Not all student losses from the pandemic are headline-grabbing. Students have forgotten some basic skills.
7 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion How to Kill Student Curiosity in 5 Steps (and What to Do Instead)
In countless classrooms across the nation, I’ve observed well-intentioned teachers and administrators slowly stifle student creativity.
Olivia Odileke
5 min read
A field of lightbulbs, only a couple are lit. Concept idea of light bulb, creative, thinking, motivation, success, and thinking, surreal conceptual art, 3d illustration, painting artwork.
Jorm Sangsorn/iStock + Education Week
Teaching Cute Visuals Can Distract Students From a Lesson: 3 Tips for Teachers
Playful visuals may make a lesson more fun, but they can also get in the way of learning.
4 min read