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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

Four Ways to Help Students Feel Intrinsically Motivated to Do Distance Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 13, 2020 6 min read
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(This is Part Four in an ongoing series responding to specific teacher questions related to remote learning. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

Note: In addition to a recent 11-part series and video offering advice to educators making the transition to remote learning, and a video offering advice to parents (along many more upcoming related posts—look for a multipart series at the end of this month in which both teachers and students will be reflecting on their first five weeks of distance learning), I’ve begun a series of short posts responding to specific questions from readers.

Part One dealt with Overcoming Apathy in Remote Teaching.

Part Two was on Five Ways to Boost Student Participation in Remote Learning.

Part Three shared Strategies to Support Some of our Most Vulnerable Students Through Distance Learning.

Today’s question comes from Jill Schneider:

What are ways to keep student engagement up? How do we motivate reluctant learners to continue learning in a virtual environment?

This post is not the first, nor will it be the last, response to that question.

Today, I’m sharing my own thoughts. ...

The four elements of intrinsic motivation

I have spent a lot of time thinking and reading about student motivation, as well as trying to help support the development of intrinsic motivation among my students. I’ve written three books on the topic, with another on the way. Katie Hull Sypnieski and I also worked with Ed Week to develop four related videos earlier this year: Everything You Wanted to Know About Student Motivation, But Were Afraid to Ask. Finally, earlier this month, I made another video for Ed Week sharing some tips for teachers to maximize their success in distance learning.

Most researchers have identified four key pieces essential to the development of student motivation:

1. Autonomy: having a degree of control over what needs to happen and how it can be done;

2. Competence: feeling that one has the ability to be successful in doing it;

3. Relatedness: doing the activity helps them feel more connected to others and feel cared about by people whom they respect; and

4. Relevance: the work must be seen by students as interesting and valuable to them and useful to their present lives and/or hopes and dreams for the future.

Here are a few ideas on how to apply each of these qualities to a virtual learning environment:


“Choice” is the operative word here. The more student choice, the greater sense of student autonomy. Many teachers are applying this concept virtually through the use of choice boards. An online search of that phrase will yield umpteen (a scientific term :) ) examples. They are basically a list of various learning tasks, often a mix of online and off-line ones, that students can choose to do. If you don’t want to do a formal choice board, you can do what I’m doing—asking my English-language-learner newcomers to spend at least 15 minutes a day on one of three sites where I can monitor their progress: Brainpop, Raz-Kids or English Central.


I’m enforcing a rule in my virtual teaching: If it takes longer than 15 or 20 seconds—or more than two or three sentences—to clearly explain what I want students to do, I forget about it or modify the assignment. This rule functions as a double-check on me to increase the likelihood that my students will be able to be successful completing the task. In addition, I try to keep in mind what web developers talk about when they say the user experience has to be “frictionless.” In other words, whatever assignments or links I place on Google Classroom should only require one—or, at most, two—clicks before students are at the page where they should be able to do the assigned work.


Having positive relationships with students is everything! Especially when it comes to virtual teaching when students really don’t have to connect with you if they don’t want to! We must do everything we can to cultivate a desire among students to want to connect with us. Of course, that’s going to be pretty difficult if you were not able to develop a positive relationship with a student when he/she was actually in your physical classroom, but it’s not impossible. I reached out several times immediately following our school’s closure to a student who had offered some major classroom- management challenges during the year. My contacts with her were focused on how she and her family were doing. In the course of that texting, I received one that said, “Mr. Ferlazzo, I want to take this as an opportunity to apologize for my past behavior in class.” As I said in my Ed Week video, we need to lead with love, not with lessons.

Helping students connect with their classmates is another way we can encourage student intrinsic motivation. Yes, an occasional video conference call “check-in” can be nice, but what I have found more helpful is having students do projects with partners of their own choosing. Being able to work in small groups of their own choosing and at their own times is clearly one of the reasons four-fifths of my International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge students are on schedule with giving their end-of-the-semester Oral Presentations.


I have taken my usual thematic schedule of topics that I always cover at the end of the year with my English-language-learner newcomer students and thrown it out the window. Instead, I have asked them for a list of topics they would like to learn about, and they’ve identified ones like the coronavirus, getting a job, and immigration laws, among many others. Hey, it’s easy for me to teach vocabulary and grammar, and create speaking and reading opportunities, in just about any topic they choose. Why not?

It might be harder to do that in some classes, but it seems to me that most teachers can create space for students to identify things they want to learn that they are interested in or which will help them achieve their own goals and dreams. Just ask!

The last thing I’m trying to do (and, believe, me, my students would agree) is hold myself up as a motivation genius. I’ve had my share of teaching flops and I will, for sure, rack up a whole lot more of them over these next two months.

I just figure it would be good to keep in mind what doctor’s say about doing no harm between now and summer, and trying to apply these four motivation principles can help us all be successful in achieving that goal.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.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.

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