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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

10 Ways to Help Students Motivate Themselves

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 19, 2023 14 min read
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Student motivation is a challenge to teachers, especially during this time of the year.

Here, two educators share their ideas on how we can encourage it to grow ...

Belonging, Purpose, Agency

Whitney Emke, the associate director of communications for EL Education, is a former special educator and behavior interventionist who specialized in working with students diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders and autism spectrum disorders. She is a first-generation college student who spent five years in the foster care system and is passionate about the power of education to disrupt intergenerational cycles of poverty and violence:

As a student, Shatera Weaver earned a needs-based scholarship to attend a renowned private school in upper Westchester County, N.Y., a 35-minute commute from her home. She describes the daily experience of hearing the train conductor announce the stop that meant she was nearly home, saying, “My body would instinctively allow my shoulders to relax and release the clench in my jaw. That lighthearted announcement meant my heart could literally lighten.” Her heart was heavy because “amongst all the standards-based critical-thinking skills I learned there, I also learned that I didn’t belong,” says Weaver, a former dean of culture at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Forest Hills, N.Y., and the current curriculum designer for EL Education.

Weaver says she struggled without the solid footing that a sense of belonging provides to students. “From 6th to 8th grade, I got into fights, broke dress code, I even purposefully dropped my grades.” As an educator, Weaver now believes that “a person’s purpose comes from being able to belong” and that for students to succeed, they must first know that their identity will be recognized and uplifted by their schools and communities.

Camille Farrington and her fellow researchers at the University of Chicago tell us that students need to feel that they belong, that they are valued, and that they can succeed (Nagaoka, Farrington, Ehrlich, and Heath, 2015). The Science of Learning & Development (SoLD) Alliance also affirms what we know to be true about taking a holistic and integrated approach to teaching and learning; students are more likely to motivate themselves to succeed academically and socially when educators empower and enable them to feel a sense of Belonging, Purpose, and Agency.

Belonging

Belonging occurs when all students feel valued as part of an inclusive learning community. They feel safe bringing their full identities to school and trust that their peers and teachers will respect them for who they are while encouraging them to strive to be their best selves.

“Students who feel safe will take on more risk, and that’s where growth really tends to happen—when students feel more vulnerable and have that support behind them in case they need an extra crutch,” says Jose Rivera, an educator and the restorative practices coordinator at the Brooklyn Collaborative in New York.

Rivera knows that relationships—both student-to-teacher relationships and student-to-student relationships—are essential in establishing students’ sense of belonging and safety. One of the primary ways Rivera works to cultivate and strengthen these relationships is through Crew, a daily advisory meeting structure and school culture that allows for and enables relationship building, academic progress monitoring, and character development.

Dylan Paris, a rising 9th grader at Brooklyn Collaborative, believes that one of the most impactful elements of Crew is its longevity; Crews at Brooklyn Collaborative form in the 6th grade, and students remain in the same Crew throughout their middle school experience. At the start of 6th grade, Dylan says he and his Crew-mates “weren’t feeling open to each other.” After spending three years together building belonging and trust, he says, “we can have more in-depth conversations and get our emotions out” during Crew. He believes Crew has given him the skills to motivate himself toward his academic and personal goals as well as help him to encourage his peers when he sees they are struggling.

Purpose

University of Texas researcher David Yeager’s examination of academic motivation in students has shown that when students have an altruistic, pro-social purpose for their work, their academic achievement is elevated. Using “gold standard” randomized control trials, Yeager has shown dramatic results for the academic boost created by connecting a virtuous purpose to learning (Yeager, et al., 2014). Students want to be good people and to have an immediate, positive impact on the communities and the world they live in; they want their learning to have a Purpose.

When students engage in challenging, meaningful learning experiences—work worth doing—they develop a larger sense of purpose. They can see how their academic work matters to their own learning and how it can and will impact their communities. Purpose is deeply correlated to Belonging, a connection that Shatera Weaver says her childhood teachers didn’t take the time to ensure she could make. Had they made an effort to ensure she felt welcomed and valued, Weaver believes she would have been able to say, “I belong here. I have a purpose to serve here” and would have felt more motivated to succeed during her time there.

From students in Detroit raising awareness about the current health impact of Detroit’s housing discrimination to humanizing the immigrant label by helping to connect community faces to inspiring stories of immigration in New London, Conn., students across the country are motivated to personal and academic success when they are given the opportunity to combine academics, character, and service to become active contributors to a better world.

Agency

Students experience Agency when they are empowered to take responsibility for their growth and act as leaders with their peers. Shatera Weaver was denied this experience as a student, which contributed to her disengagement and sense of disenfranchisement as well as her determination as an educator to ensure that the students she serves never experience that same lack of agency.

As students receive the tools to understand and assess their strengths and challenges, they are ultimately empowered to become leaders of their own learning. They can understand and articulate learning targets, use feedback from teachers and peers to continuously revise their work while striving toward high-quality exemplars of student work, and develop the skills needed to present and defend their work publicly.

When students feel comfortable and safe bringing their full identities to school and are provided with personal and academic autonomy as they engage in work that improves the communities they live in, they are more likely to motivate themselves and their peers toward personal and academic success. When students are equipped with Belonging, Purpose, and Agency, they can and will demonstrate the passion and capacity to contribute their unique genius to the world.

studentsexperienceagency

Seven Classroom Conditions That Engage and Motivate Students

Author, teacher, consultant, Laura Robb has taught grades 4 to 8 for more than 40 years and continues to coach teachers in elementary and middle schools. The author of more than 40 books on literacy, Robb writes blogs, creates podcasts with her son, Evan Robb, and speaks at national and state conferences:.

The goal of learning should be to nurture positive relationships between you and students and among students which, in turn, can develop a community of engaged learners motivated to collaborate, support one another, and find joy and satisfaction in their work. The seven conditions that follow can support students’ motivation and desire to learn, collaborate, self-assess, and grow as thinkers and communicators.

1. Student-Centered Learning invites teachers to place students at the center and give them voice and choice so they have more control over their learning. Students, with the support of their teacher, become decisionmakers and can negotiate what they’ll learn, how they learn the material, establish deadline dates, complete self-evaluation of their progress, and select authentic materials.

Whole-group, small-group, and individual learning are part of a student-centered approach and can include project-based learning, collaborative discussions, service learning, and peer teaching and support. This approach empowers and motivates students by focusing on their strengths and can result in enhanced engagement, increased agency and meta-cognition, as students collaborate with their teacher and peers to develop their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

2. Restorative and Sustaining Practices began in Australia in the 1990s and asked teachers to move from the punitive practices of blame and punishment to a just approach that seeks growth and positive, lasting change. When students break rules and act out, restorative practices invite teachers to focus on understanding the problem and students’ feelings. When teachers are empathetic listeners and process the student’s perspective while attending to their explanations and body language, they can gain insights into the student’s actions. Instead of accusing a student, be an active listener and repeat what you heard.

For example, a student hurls verbal insults and threatens to punch a peer. The teacher’s response using restorative language might be: I heard you insult and threaten Joshua, and that worried me. In this class, I want all students to feel safe and respected by their peers and by me. Can you both take deep breaths and tell me what happened? This nonjudgmental statement can de-escalate the conflict, encourage both students to share their perspective and to start taking responsibility for their actions while providing teachers time to consider a response. Restorative practices create a safe learning environment and can build students’ agency, responsibility, trust, empathy, motivation to learn and to problem-solve while sustaining these positive attributes throughout the year.

3. Differentiation asks teachers to meet the unique learning needs of each student by being responsive and tailoring instruction to their specific challenges, allowing all students to experience success and develop the motivation to work hard and make academic progress. In academically and culturally diverse classroom communities, the differentiated-teaching model addresses students’ readiness for learning specific tasks and uses their strengths and interests to design supportive interventions.

Differentiation can help students experience success with learning because teachers develop instructional moves to meet individual needs by adjusting content, tasks, process, the learning environment, and products. As students experience success with their learning, the risk of disengagement can decrease, and they develop the motivation to invest in their work and take ownership of their learning.

4. Collaboration, working as a team on specific projects and using literature to engage in student-led conversations can result in enhanced engagement and motivation to learn. Students invest in and engage in their learning when teachers provide them with the skill set for collaborative, long-term projects, how to develop their own high-order questions to discuss literature, and self-evaluating their progress.

When students actively participate in decisions that affect their engagement and motivation to learn, they develop agency, independence, and responsibility to themselves and others. In addition, collaborative learning with a partner or small group can improve students’ oral communication, their ability to problem-solve and actively listen, increase their confidence as learners, and nurture leadership skills.

5. Reflection asks students to look back and think about their reading and learning to gain insights into their process that can help them move forward. By cultivating self-awareness, students take responsibility for their learning and with teachers’ support explore ways they can grow and improve as critical thinkers. When teachers model reflection, discuss its benefits, and then reserve time for students to reflect on their discussions, choices, decisions, and written work, students’ engagement and motivation can increase.

6. Conferences, one-on-one, and small-group meetings offer teachers multiple opportunities to understand students’ progress, attitudes, motivation, and their ability to apply learning strategies and think with the facts. Sitting side-by-side with students and listening carefully to their comments and questions enables you to get inside their heads and understand the level of their engagement and motivation.

Besides scheduled conferences, conferring can and should happen when students work independently or collaboratively during class while teachers circulate around the room, pause at each desk to assess how things are going to support students and answer their questions. Not only can immediate teacher support prevent small confusions from becoming roadblocks to learning, but they also build students’ self-confidence and engagement as they successfully complete their work.

7. Formative assessments occur frequently, and the information you gather by observing and interacting with students enables you to support them as soon as challenges arise. Watch students while they read, write in their notebooks, discuss texts with peers, collaborate on projects, and work independently.

Read their written work to better understand their progress. Respond to their questions and write suggestions on a dated sticky note that acts as a reminder and resource for students. Focus on two to four students each day class meets, and in the course of two weeks, it’s possible to interact with everyone. There will be times when a few students seem to struggle; observe and listen to them frequently so that you gather data that can enlarge an understanding of their needs and the kinds of interventions that might support them.

differentiationcanhelp

Thanks to Whitney and Laura for contributing their thoughts today.

This is the fourth post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

The question of the week is:

What strategies have you used to create classroom conditions where students were more likely to motivate themselves, including those who didn’t initially seem very engaged?

Chandra Shaw, Irina McGrath, Meg Riordan, and Andrew Sharos kicked off this series.

Chandra, Irina, Meg, and Andrew were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, I shared an excerpt from my new book, The Student Motivation Handbook.

In Part Three, Diana Laufenberg, Mary K. Tedrow, and Valerie King offered their suggestions.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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