Motivating Students To Learn: New Teachers Reflect

New teachers begin their careers starry-eyed and optimistic that they will make a difference in the life of every student they teach. When they meet students whose performance doesn’t match their expectations, teachers channel this optimism to support students in improving their learning and behavioral outcomes.  Every teacher eventually realizes that not every student wakes up excited to attend school or prepared to give her or his best effort.  Beyond the classroom, parents, students, and other outside influencers can drain a student’s zeal to improve their behavior or performance. Let’s also not forget, school is compulsory; the curriculum, often prescribed, has an obscure relevance to students’ lives; and it’s a space where students are judged by peers and ruled by adults. It’s no wonder that student motivation is an ongoing concern.

There’s no single formula for shaping student motivation and igniting students’ internal drive to strive and achieve. How teachers engage students in the classroom and respond to outside influences on their students can vary greatly. Here are some reflections, submitted by first-year teachers in our Alternate Route Teacher Training Program, on the challenges and successes faced when applying student motivation concepts to their professional practice.


Content accessibility as a motivators

“I agree that ‘Motivation is something constructed by both teachers and students,’ but I do not believe the distribution is equitable. I believe that teachers hold a greater responsibility in constructing motivation because they are the ones who come up with tasks for students to complete. They can share this responsibility with students at times, by providing room for student choice and student input; but for the most part, if activities are not engaging, it is very difficult for even the most motivated student to stay on task. I find that this has been the area where I have struggled the most as a new teacher.

I teach math for 9th and 10th graders and, after coming from an industry profession, haven’t seen many of these concepts in over a decade. I find that I must dedicate a good amount of time to staying ahead of the curriculum so that I comprehend it at a deep enough level to distill important concepts and effectively address any misconceptions my students may have. For this reason, I don’t have as much time to develop creative, engaging assignments as more experienced teachers. I try to offset this by using resources that other teachers have made available online. I have also tried to incorporate classroom-discovery activities into my lesson plan. These assignments can be tricky as they must be scaffolded just right so that students are able to straddle between the ‘zones of proximal development’ in working on their own and needing help. I’m confident that as I get to know my students and the curriculum at a deeper level I will improve upon these skills.”

— Amanda, Somerset


Engaging, relevant experiences as motivators

“My goal when planning my lesson every week is to find activities, assignments or any learning methods that relate to my students' interests. In this way, I work to ignite the learning fire inside of them, regardless of the content topic. When teachers put significant effort into making lessons interesting, students eventually look forward to coming to class to do something fun and develop a passion for learning. I’ve found that when I use activities that my students enjoy to teach content, the lesson becomes most effective.”

— Thy, Camden

“I think first and foremost, students need to be willing and able to learn new ideas and concepts. They must also be willing to work with teachers on reaching their goals. I also think that it is a teacher’s number one priority to make the learning experience fun, enjoyable, and most of all, relatable. When I was younger and in school, I used to always wonder how the content would fit into my everyday life. When I could connect lessons and theories to my surroundings, I was more motivated to deepen my understandings. That is why I believe that motivation is a joint effort—while teachers strive to make content accessible and relatable, students also need to be willing to learn.”

— Ryan, Paterson


Competition, collaboration & continuous encouragement as motivators

“I’ve found that competition is often an effective method for motivating students. A lot of students like to be recognized for doing a good job whether or not there is some kind of incentivizing reward. Teachers can also build relationships with students, by praising them throughout the competition. I find that creating friendly competitions in the classroom is a good way to get students to collaborate as well. When students have to join teams in order to compete activities, students who usually work independently are removed from their comfort zone and forced to partner up with others. Oftentimes, these independent workers are either higher-level kids who can act as peer tutors, or students who struggle and don't want others to know that they struggle. In either scenario, the opportunity for students to increase their zone of proximal development (ZPD) is increased.”

— Kristen, Mercer

“Motivation is something constructed by teachers, and then built upon by both them and students. Teachers initiate the motivation and then students either become motivated or motivate each other. Teacher must ask themselves, “Can students succeed? Is the task engaging? Will I assist and encourage risk taking?” If they cannot say yes to the following questions, students will have a difficult time being motivated. Once motivation is established, teachers can go deeper into students’ thinking by asking further questions, giving harder tasks, etc. Students can also build upon motivation through competition. Working in or with groups can be a motivation builder for everyone because of the competition or shared success.”

— Chang-Po, Hackensack


Involving parents & families as motivators

“I believe that motivation is constructed by students, teachers, and families and functions as a principle that requires support from all three entities. The burden of motivation does not lie solely on the shoulders of either the student, family, or teacher alone. I feel that students reach academic and social/emotional success when all three parties work together to encourage motivation and seek what encourages students to be motivated.

There is an emphasis on motivation working as an ideal that is acquired. It is a process through which a learner gains competence through experience. Said experience is derived from modeling and the communication of expectations from primary socializing agents, which are in most cases parents and teachers. Therefore I believe that teachers and parents guide the acquisition of motivation; however, students must at some juncture learn to self-motivate. The process of acquiring self-motivation skills often directly relates to the manner in which students were motivated by their socializing agents.”

— Kheri, Newark

“Parents or other family role models communicate expectations of achievement and success to students early on, then teachers step in and show students that with effort and perseverance, success is indeed possible and achievable. I have often observed situations where students express surprise that they scored well on a test. This indicates to me that these students are doubting their ability to not just learn but excel, and points to a need for continuing encouragement and reassurance [by the teacher].”

— Joseph, Rockaway


What are your observations on the topic of student motivation? Keep the conversation going or share a resource in the comments!


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Heather Ngoma

Heather Ngoma has over 20 years experience collaborating with educators across New Jersey to drive education innovation. She currently serves as the Director of Rutgers University's Alternate Route Teacher Training Program at the Center for Effective School Practices, a program which helps career changers, recent college graduates and other aspiring education professionals become licensed teachers in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter @heatherngoma.