Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Listen, Empathize, Connect’ For Student Motivation

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 23, 2013 7 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series on student motivation. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

Fitta Astriyani asked:

How can I deal with unmotivated students? I’m a little bit frustrated when I know my students don’t do their homework and sometimes they talk during my lessons.

Part One of this series included responses from Cris Tovani, Josh Stumpenhorst and Eric Jensen. Part Two featured another “all-star” line-up of guests: Maurice J. Elias, Stevi Quate and Cindi Rigsbee.

Today, educators Jason Flom and Barbara Blackburn contribute their thoughts, along with many comments from readers.

Response From Jason Flom

Jason Flom is the Learning and Communications director at Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, FL. He is an ASCD Emerging Leader, class of 2010, and the founding editor of Ecology of Education, a multi-author blog exploring issues and ideas in education. He is also a BAM Commentator. You can follow him on Twitter at @JasonFlom:

Whenever I work with students who seem to lack that “drive” or “ambition” (a.k.a. interest and willingness), I begin with Q.E.D. Foundation’s founding principles: We are all learners. Learning changes lives. Learning needs to happen in different ways. Learning empowers.

While the unmotivated student may seem blatantly defiant in their unwillingness to engage, by thinking of them as learners in need of an opportunity to meaningfully engage, one is more likely to find solutions that work for the individual.

Step 1: Listen, empathize, connect

Questions I ask myself in wanting to draw students in:

  • What are these students saying? Or saying “in between the lines”?
  • What are their strengths as individuals?
  • What are their interests? What is important to them?
  • What might school / my class feel like from their perspective?
  • How can I communicate that I appreciate them as people first and as students second?

Step 2: Adapt

Personal relationships with students make adapting lessons to draw on their interests, strengths, and needs much easier. I believe that students are inherently compassionate and want the world to be different than it is. This is my point of leverage.

Given what is known about the students, what might they want to do to change the world? To make it better? More livable? More aligned with their values?

In steering such questions toward a viable service-learning project, the triptych for unlocking motivation is there - meaningful action, purposeful learning, and authentic outcomes. When students see their actions and voices are not only valued but also empowered, they begin to turn from motivation-free to motivated.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is an educational consultant and author of 13 books, including the best-selling Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and her latest, Rigor for Students with Special Needs. She writes a blog and can be reached at her website:

Students are always motivated--just not by what we want them to be motivated by! Of course, you can always use extrinsic rewards, such as tokens, etc. But I tend to focus on building intrinsic motivation that comes from within the student, even though it takes longer.

Intrinsic motivation has two foundational elements:

  • People are more motivated when they value what they are doing.
  • People are more motivated when they believe they have a chance for success.


Students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to learn if they value what they are asked to do. There are three ways students see value in learning. First, they see the value of the content, or the relevance. This is why you’ll hear a student say, “Why do I need to learn this?” We are all more motivated when we see a reason to learn. Next, students see value in the type of activity they are doing. You may teach a student who doesn’t thrive with paper and pencil work, but does well when doing an activity. We can tap into a students’ value with engaging strategies--the more active, the better. Finally, students see value in a relationship with the teacher. Have you ever taught a student who didn’t do well in other classes but was wonderful in yours? Chances are it was due to the relationship he or she had with you. They liked you, trusted you, and were willing to learn because of that. Each of these three ways can help students build value for learning.


Next, students are motivated when they believe they have a chance to be successful. Unfortunately, many students do not have a strong track record of success in academic settings. There are several ways you can help students be successful. For optimal motivation, the activity should be challenging, but in balance with your ability to perform.

Another way to build feelings of success is the encouragement a student receives from others. Encouragement can be in the form of words or actions, occurs while a student is working, and helps students make progress by helping them see that sense of accomplishment.

It’s also important for students to read and learn about people who failed before they succeeded, because the final building block is a student’s beliefs about success and failure. Read about people who have overcome failure, and bring in role models who can discuss success and failure.

By helping students see value and build success, the more motivated they will become.

Responses From Readers


Give them choice! When students have a choice, there is more buy-in, and they are more likely to be motivated to complete a task.

Mindy Keller-Kyriakides:

It’s helpful to first understand the source of their lack of motivation. Is it a self-efficacy issue, for example, or is it that the work is too easy? Whatever the source is will help teachers determine whether to scaffold more purposefully or amp up for learners who need the stimulation.

Additionally, having an undeniably clear connection to real-world problems, issues, or to the self also helps. This entails an analysis of the learners, based on age, general likes/dislikes, and so on.


The notion of an “unmotivated” student should raise the question, unmotivated to do what? As humans we are all naturally inquisitive and therefore natural learners, to be unmotivated to learn would be, well unhuman, so there must be another issue at work here. It should be obvious that kids aren’t motivated to learn what we think they should be learning. This disconnect lies at the heart of a multitude of ed issues, not least of which is the chronic 50% drop-out rate in all our nation’s urban centers.

Maybe, just maybe its time to listen to our kids, what their interests are, what their dreams are, and then motivate ourselves to work with our human brothers and sisters on their terms.

Lynn Bruno:

I actually hate this question because it diverts the focus from the real question, How can we foster a passion to learn in all students? Asking what a teacher can do to motivate an “unmotivated” student places the onus on the teacher to do all the work and the benefits are always short lived, the goals achieved short term. While I have used all of the above approaches during my years of teaching, none of them inspired a sustainable love for learning in any student and that is the real goal. What I can do as a teacher is be passionate about learning, enthusiastic about the journey, and caring enough toward the student to take him or her on that journey with me. That is the only way I know to spark within a child the desire to learn that will burn long after I am no longer in his or her life.

Qute a few readers sent their responses in tweets, and I’ve used Storify to collection them:

Thanks to Jason and Barbara, and to many readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing 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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

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

Look for the next “question-of-the-week” in a few days...

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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