10 Ideas for Motivating Students

I recently saw something online asking about how to motivate students. It got me thinking: What would my advice to others be on this important topic?

I thought about my seven years of teaching foreign languages—how I talked to students about the benefits of learning a language, how I came up with games so that learning would be fun, how I was always trying to think of new activities to keep students interested. But motivating students isn’t just about ideas for games or what specific discussions to have—suggestions for those things wouldn’t even apply to all students, classes, and subjects.

So I started thinking bigger and broader, about not just little activities, but about the overarching concepts and approaches that help teachers reach students. This resulting list comes from my own experience, both as a teacher, and as a student, and I hope it helps you reach and motivate others when it matters.

  1. First and foremost, make sure your course content is solid. One of the best ways to engage your students is to teach them well. Put the time in and develop an awesome class with topics that matter and assignments that help you learn. Hint: This means no busy work, no unfair test questions, no confusing assignments…and no coloring pages.

  2. Be passionate about the subject you teach. Tell your students about how you fell in love with your subject and how wonderous it is. Share those dorky jokes and the memes that are only funny to people in your field. Your gusto will help students be more interested in learning something new.

  3. Explain the “why,” and connect to the real world. The perpetual student complaint is the famous “When am I ever going to use this?” As much as possible, justify to students the concepts you teach and the assignments you give by talking about related jobs, current events, inventions, and other real-life implications of what they’re learning.

  4. Give choices. Letting students make choices creates a sense of buy-in. Maybe they already get to choose the topic of the final project—where else you could incorporate more choices? Perhaps you can create two versions of smaller assignments, give several possible essay prompts rather than one, or add a video submission option to a written project. Even small choices foster ownership and interest.

  5. Be fair. Speaking from my own time as a student, few things were more infuriating and alienating than when a teacher was unfair. Succeeding in your class should never be a guessing game. So be upfront about expectations, use rubrics for grading assignments, state clearly what will be on the test, give reasonable deadlines, listen when students complain, have patience when life throws one a curveball, and admit it when you mess up. Oh, and if you’ve ever used the term “weed out” when describing your class…you’re doing it wrong.

  6. Use stories. As humans, we are naturally drawn to stories. They are a lot more interesting to listen to than long lists of facts! Think about how you can incorporate subject-related anecdotes to build interest in what you’re teaching—like telling about the time in chemistry lab you accidentally set something on fire when talking about the importance of following procedures.

  7. Incorporate fun and humor. Planning little ways to incorporate moments of fun and humor into your course is a great way to draw students in. Subject-related games, celebrities, video clips, songs, jokes, movie scenes, or memes are a great place to start.

  8. Learn from your students. Students have unique insight and great ideas. Ask students about why they’re taking your class and what they hope to get out of it—and use their answers to shape your lesson plans. Request ideas for topics or assignments that would be fun and engaging for future students. Solicit and integrate feedback. This shows students they and their ideas matter (with the bonus of helping to improve your teaching).

  9. Offer extra credit. I’ve always offered unlimited extra credit, with carefully-curated activities designed to further their learning. (There is a qualification: They have to have all real assignments turned in first.) I do this because I want students to learn, but also for another reason: It helps students feel in control, when so often school is out of their control. Unlimited extra credit might not be your style, but even smaller opportunities can help students feel like they can succeed and take charge of their own learning.

  10. Finally, accept that you’re never going to be the perfect teacher for everyone—but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying. Working hard and seeking to improve as a teacher means you will be able to reach and motivate more and more of your students. But, in the words of Dita Von Teese, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be someone who hates peaches.” For some students, your styles don’t match, or they have outside things inhibiting their learning, or maybe your class is just too early in the morning. But while there will be students you just can’t motivate, there will also be students whose lives you change. So keep improving, keep trying, and keep going—it really does matter.

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