The right motivators can help to engage students
When students are failing to complete work, falling behind, and even failing to show up for class, it can be challenging to figure out what’s wrong and how to turn things around.
COVID has magnified the problem: absenteeism rates have doubled (now averaging 10 percent) since the pandemic began, according to Education Week. Absences are up for both virtual and in-person classes.
To get students back on track, the first step for teachers should be trying different motivational strategies in the classroom (as opposed to reprimanding or punishing students). The goal is to inspire students to change their problem behavior, whether it’s failing to show up for virtual classes, not participating, not doing homework assignments, or not studying for tests.
In this article, we’ll explain some of the most effective strategies teachers can use to engage students and motivate them to do better.
What are extrinsic motivators vs. intrinsic motivators?
Understanding the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, and when to use each, can help teachers address what students care about most at a given time.
I like to explain the difference with an analogy about work. Most of us work because we earn a paycheck. The money we get paid is an extrinsic (or external) reward that motivates us on the most basic level. Knowing we’ll get that reward is what we need to get out there and do what’s expected of us every day.
But if we get lucky, over time we get good at what we do and we become proud of our accomplishments. At that point, we learn to love the job and we might even keep doing it if they didn’t pay us! That’s an intrinsic reward, an internal motivator that keeps us going when we’re faced with difficult challenges.
With our students, we can use the same motivational strategy. We start with extrinsic rewards, like stickers or stars on a chart, to encourage students to change their behavior. Grades are also an extrinsic motivator. At first, students need to receive those external rewards quickly and regularly to persuade them to do something that’s difficult for them.
However, over time, those behaviors they did for external rewards lead to internal changes. They start doing better work, which engenders pride. They understand what’s going on in class, and they feel smarter. They start to get praise from the teacher and from their parents, which boosts their confidence. They begin to feel more capable and equal to their peers. All of these are intrinsic motivators that keep the student on track even without external rewards.
Related article: 4 Classroom Behavior Problems & Better Teacher Responses
Autonomy as a motivational strategy in the classroom
Giving students autonomy, or choices, is a way to help them develop intrinsic motivation, because it helps them to feel like they have control.
It’s a very helpful strategy when a student feels overwhelmed by a big project or multiple assignments that need to be completed. Give the student options. Let them choose which part of the work to do first. You might even give them a choice of format (writing a paper or doing a presentation).
It’s also helpful to set multiple milestones or due dates so you can check in on the student’s progress. At each milestone, you can praise the student for what they have accomplished so far, and encourage them to take the next step. Doing that allows the student to become motivated by the competency they are developing.
How to use praise the right way
Praise can be one of the most effective ways to motivate students. However, there’s a right and a wrong way to praise.
The wrong way is writing “good job!” on the top of their essay. Vague praise like this doesn’t help the student to improve, because they won’t understand what was “good.”
The right way is being very specific with your praise and telling the student exactly what they did that you liked: “I liked how you organized your thoughts in this paper,” or “I appreciate how much effort you put into this project.”
Doing that lets the student know which action or behavior to repeat.
Overcoming frustration with competency
Students need to be challenged but not frustrated. When they reach the point where the work becomes so difficult that it’s overwhelming, they will stop trying. When you see a student resisting doing the work and reacting emotionally, that’s a signal that they feel frustrated and incompetent.
When a student is frustrated, it’s time for you to bring the student back to a mastered skill to restore their confidence.
For example, let’s say you assigned a set of math problems. Mostly easy ones, but you included a few more challenging problems. A student who is struggling may stop cold when unable to do the harder ones. Your job is to encourage a feeling of competency by letting them know how well they did on most of the problems. That small reward of getting something right can help them to keep trying. Then you can work through the harder ones together, showing your faith in the student’s ability to learn the harder material and acquire new skills.
It can be helpful to let students know that they are not expected to be perfect and get everything right. I like to use sports as an example to illustrate this point. Even the best hitters in baseball only succeed a third of the time!
Focusing on competency is also a tactic I use with parents. With student attendance problems, parents need to step up and get involved, and that can be a challenge for those who feel less than confident about their parenting skills. Pointing out what is going well and what the parent did right (even if it’s just getting on the phone with you) can break through their defensiveness and make them willing to try working with their child.
Enlist parents and friends to help
When a student is having a hard time staying motivated to work, getting parents involved can make all the difference. I don’t mean asking parents to nag or punish kids for struggling. I mean having parents model the desired behavior, express empathy, and just to be there to support their child through something difficult.
I ask parents to sit alongside their child and work together at home. While the student is working on homework assignments, the parent can be paying bills, sending emails, researching household purchases, or catching up on their own work.
It can be a big relief to a child when they realize that their parent is having a similar experience and understands what they are going through. That time spent together is another motivator that can make the student more willing to keep trying.
The same tactic can work with friends: asking a friend with good study habits to work alongside the struggling student (even on Facetime) can be a beneficial motivator.
More help for getting avoidant students back to the classroom
Sometimes a student’s absenteeism or school refusal is a bigger problem that can’t be resolved with the tactics described here. When everything you have tried is failing, and the student doesn’t respond to any communication, you need to get others involved who are trained in family intervention strategies.
To learn more, register for our webinar, Virtual Learning Dropouts: How to Get Students Back to Class.