I'm seeing it everywhere: teachers are tired and frustrated. And one of the biggest problems they are facing (among many) is the seemingly insurmountable task of motivating apathetic teens. If you are one of those teachers, read on for 3 strategies to motivate students.
I wish I had a one-size-fits-all approach that will work every time for every single student. I don't. But, I've got more than three decades of experience that taught me what gets students excited about being in school. I learned the most about this in the last five years because there is no question that it's getting harder to motivate students.
And we can blame all the factors that have lead to this - social media, parents, video games, lockdowns, etc. - or we can dig in and deal with the problem that is sitting in our classroom everyday. Because, as we know, that's what teachers do.
So let's get to it. How can you motivate students to learn? Read on and I'll give you strategies to:
✅ Start with a hook that makes students want to show up
✅ Chunk your lessons in a way that holds student attention
✅ Motivate your students by making the teaching and learning more visible
1. Carefully plan your hook
I realize that the concept of a hook is pretty basic Teacher - 101 stuff. But it's basic because it's super important. And I'm not talking about something complicated, highly entertaining, or time-consuming to prepare. Instead, you can motivate students with a regular pattern for how you begin your classes.
A good hook gets class started on time, is short but engaging, and is (usually) focused on the learning for the class. Despite what they might show you, humans - even the teenage variety - crave routine. Also, when students know you always start at the bell, they will be much more likely to show up on time - especially when there's a hook that they look forward to.
The hook doesn't have to be long: it could just be one single question that gets students thinking & talking, or a quick story you tell that relates to your topic. It could be just a fun riddle to get their minds working.
Or, it can be something fun that gets students brains engaged in a skill you want to work on. When I start persuasive writing, for example, I start with an activity where students have to persuade each other to do things like wear the same outfit every day for a week or shaving their head. My students always loved this exercise and it was a wonderful way to hook and motivate them. Check it out here and grab the activity for free.
If you want even more ways to hook your students, click here to grab a resource full of ideas, including ongoing group challenges you can use.
👉🏻 And don't forget to close your class in a way that's both meaningful and engaging. Check out these strategies.
2. Chunk Your Lessons to Keep Students Motivated
According to John Merino of Brain Rules, we don't pay attention to boring things.
Now wait. I'm not suggesting that YOU are boring.
But let's get real for a minute. Most of your students are in your class because they have to be. They didn't select you on a menu because they thought I'd really like to spend an hour learning about Writing/Shakespeare/ Rhetoric today. So we need to face the fact that no matter how engaging we are, no matter how active our lesson might be, students may not be into it.
The other reality we have to face is that these students are different than we are. Let me take you down a quick walk down memory lane to show you what I mean:
When I graduated from high school in 1985 the only access I had to information was the five year old Encyclopedia Brittanica in my house, the card catalogue and the microfiche in the library, and the three channels on our tv. If I wanted a book, I could choose from the selection that our book store had - there was no Amazon.
My youngest graduated in 2018. He had the world in his back pocket, as my father says of the cell phone. He had access to soooo much more information than I did and he consumed it in very different ways than I did.
In fact, I consume information very differently than seventeen year old Jackie did. When I read online, I jump from news story to social media platform to video and back again. I cannot focus they way I once could.
Technology has changed our attention spans, but our practices in school have largely remained the same. Students won't sit and listen to a long lecture or participate in long activities unless there's some chunking.
What does that look like?
First of all, aim to keep your lectures and lessons short and focused. In Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning, Michael Schmoker recommends time limits between sections of a lecture; he says that the teacher should, "talk for 'no more than five minutes' before giving students an opportunity to process the new information—by writing or by interacting with their peers about the stated learning goal."
So, look at your lessons and devise a plan to chunk them into smaller bites. Pause around five minutes (obviously it may take more or less sometimes) and build in a chance for students to not only process but to switch things up. You can do this with:
• A quick reflection about what they have learned
• A chance to practice a skill you've just taught them
• Turn and talks (or stand-and-talks) where they discuss a question you pose or share their learning (and confusions)
• A short video that relates to the topic
Instead of your class structure looking like this: 20 - 30 minutes of teacher-centered time followed by 2o minutes of students working, consider ways you could chunk this: five minutes introducing one part of the lesson followed by a reflection. Another five minutes of the lesson followed by a turn-and-talk, a chance to try a skill, etc.
Give students a break: it's also ok - and very effective - to give students a break part way through class. It was probably one of the best things I ever did to increase engagement in my classes. Click here to open the link to a blog post that explains why, so you can read it when you finish here.
3. Engage Students with More Visual Learning
If you follow me, you know that I am a HUGE proponent of making teaching and learning visible. It's actually my number one strategy to motivate students. That's because when we find ways to model our own processes and create opportunities for students to "see" how learning works, they will engage and be more motivated to learn.
Trust me; it works.
Activities that keep students active - mentally and physically - will also keep them more motivated to learn. Conversely, passive learning - the type that has students sitting and listening, doing lower level thinking activities - can do a lot to sink them into apathy.
I've had some of my greatest successes with active learning and visible thinking activities and I'm going to share one that it is always a hit. Students learn about the power of brainstorming, the importance of adding detail that shows rather than tells, and the effect of perspective on a subject - all with a gummy worm. Grab it here and try it and see how motivated your students will be!
Find more ideas and inspiration by going to the blog posts linked below.
Another aspect of visual learning is the way we present information to our students.
Let's go back to they way that we consume information now. It's very visual and very interactive. Your students read a lot online. They engage with all kinds of information and learning every day.
We can tap into this natural curiosity, but we may need to consider how we deliver our content if we want to capture their attention.
When I was in high school, we read text, lots of it. There were no links to videos or audio because the technology to do so did not exist. I - and most of my classmates - were ok with reading long handouts because that was how it was done. There was no alternative.
Fast forward thirty years, and my son who recently graduated from high school, was getting handouts that looked just like the ones I got. There was nothing wrong with them, but my son - by the very fact that he grew up in the 21st century - is a very different consumer of information than I was at his age.
Our students are used to snazzy visuals and quick sound bites. They consume A LOT of information, but they like to do it quickly.
Is it any wonder their eyes glaze over in class?
In my experience, when I made material more interactive or visual, but adding images and embedded videos, more students read and absorbed it. I have some examples if you'd like to learn more, click below:
Another way to make learning more visual - and to get students to think about the material, is by using sketch notes. This video gives a very good explanation of how and why to use them.
There are also tools on Google Slides that can help students create their own graphic organizers. Get a great list on Ditch That Text Book.
So, there you have it: 3 strategies to motivate students. I really hope you found something that can help you in your classroom. Don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions - or leave a comment here and I'll answer as soon as I can.
And, if you'd like to work on your classroom management skills, I've got a course you can take (for PD hours). Find out more here.
Check out other strategies for motivating students:
Jackie, ROOM 213