Seven tips from a learning strategies motivational expert

While it’s easy to look at underperforming students and label them as lazy, in reality, research indicates that most students lack motivation because of three fundamental factors:
1. Students don’t believe they can succeed even if they try.
2. Students don’t feel they have any control over their life choices.
3. Students have a need to avoid failure.

How to combat negative beliefs

The best way to combat these negative beliefs and behaviors to motivate students is to use teaching strategies that engage learners and support their experience of success in the classroom. That said, these strategies will work with most of your students, yet may not work with all of them.

Walk your talk: Don’t feel like a failure if you can’t reach one

It’s important to understand that, as teachers, we should not give up on using engaging strategies because there might be a few students on our roster who, no matter what we do to reach them, we cannot reach. Just as we need to help students focus on their success, we as educators, also need to focus on our successes and not give up because our efforts are not 100% successful. As a teacher mentor, I see, all too often, that teachers will give up because they focused on the one or two students in the classroom that they cannot reach. Don’t fall into that trap.

Strategies that support success:

1. Chunking
Chunk tasks for students so that they approach their learning challenges a piece at a time. Students who struggle in the classroom are best served by breaking assignments into manageable parts, with manageable deadlines, that focus on success. Chunking does not require teachers to reduce rigor.

Imagine that you have to clean a very messy, seven room house. If you were to chunk the task of cleaning the house, you might tackle one room at a time, or first declutter, one room at a time, and then dust on another day. On the third day, you might wash and polish floors, then wash and clean the rugs. Eventually, if these tasks are spread out over a period of time, the house will be impeccably clean. Essentially, this is the same approach as chunking assignments in the classroom. Each chunk, completed well, is a success to be celebrated.

2. Offer choices in academic assignments
Offer students choices as often as possible to allow them to exercise control over their lives. Too often, students feel they have no control over their success or their emotions. They blame others for their failure or attribute their success to good luck rather than their hard work and ability, or they blame themselves, using the excuse that they are stupid. When students have choices, they must exercise control to make decisions. Once they make a decision, it’s critical that they accept the consequences of those decisions. They own it, for good or for bad.

3. Ask students what went right
Focus on what the student has learned from an exercise or an assignment as opposed to what went wrong. Most importantly, encourage students to think beyond the grade and to understand that mistakes are an opportunity for learning. Recently, I observed a teacher handing back assignments and highlighting how many points the student had improved from the previous assignment. Students cheered for each other, acknowledging everyone who made gains. If there were students who did not make gains, that was handled discreetly because I never heard a negative number called out. It was exciting to see students and teachers celebrating even small successes.

4. Create opportunities for students to exhibit their strengths
When assigning students to groups in a high school biology class, the teachers asked for five volunteers who could draw well. Three students quickly stood up. The teachers announced again that they needed five and asked for the rest of the class to share who they felt was good at art. Students quickly named two additional students. Each of those students was then assigned to a separate group. Now, each group had an artist to work with on the project. The teachers then went on to ask for excellent internet researchers. Five students quickly stood up. Those five students were assigned to five separate groups. Now each group had an artist and a researcher. Student individual strengths were celebrated so even students who may not have been outstanding biologists had an opportunity to focus on their success and how it contributed to the team.

5. Students need personal goals
Ask students about their goals and frequently show the connection between what they are learning in the classroom to their personal goals. Be ready to answer the question, “Why do I need this?” rather than share careers that may be meaningless to specific students, try to find examples from a wide spectrum of interests and career paths so that students might see the possibilities and the light that is meaningful to them.

6. Energize your class
Infuse your classroom with short musical energy breaks once or twice during a class period. Set a timer for 90 seconds, crank up some Vivaldi, Mozart, or other Baroque period pieces that play at about 60 beats per minute. Then, have students stand, stretch, move, clap, stomp, or dance to the music. If you want to take that up a level, create an “I can do it!” chant to the beat of the music.

7. Teach students how to learn
Allow students opportunities to study the way that they learn instead of the way you learn or way the teacher’s manual dictates. Some students learn by writing what they hear. Some students learn by drawing pictures and labeling what they hear. Some write best from a traditional outline. Some write best if they start with a graphic organizer. Some work best standing or sitting on a Pilates ball. Some prefer the traditional desk and chair. Some memorize better by singing their notes. Some need to repeat what they have learned over and over again in a chant. Avoid forcing all students to learn the same way at the same time and at the same pace. There’s no faster way to de-motivate students than to fail to recognize their individuality.

Motivating students to be engaged learners, using these seven strategies effectively, will make a difference for your students in 30 days or less!

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