How to Motivate Students

· June 5, 2018
Once a student gets to middle school, motivation becomes one of the most important factors in how well they will learn. In fact, the apathy that usually comes along with being an unmotivated student sometimes involves other behaviors that are hard to manage on their own. That’s why it’s so important to motivate students, especially once they’re teenagers.

As they develop socially, kids pick up behaviors, values, and rules. That also means that they start to have their own way of thinking, feeling, and acting. This is the phase where rebelliousness, apathy, lack of perspective, isolation, and avoidance are major dangers watch out for. But motivation can help.

What kind of motivation should you encourage?

Motivation is the special ingredient in achieving goals. It’s a necessary factor that pushes you to action. But traditionally, experts have defined two different kinds of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation is the kind that makes you want to do things that are interesting to you. Just doing them gives you satisfaction.
  • Extrinsic motivation is the most useful kind. It has to do with things you do as a way to reach other objectives or avoid punishment. For example, extrinsic motivation would be when a kid does their English homework so they can play football with their friends later on.
kid with a lot of self-motivation reading: motivate students.

So if you can get a student to read because they’re interested in what they’re learning, and that makes them feel self-fulfilled, then you’ve gotten them to be intrinsically motivated. The problem is that this kind of motivation doesn’t work for everything.

That’s why internalizing is such an important part of it. It means adopting behaviors, values, and rules that come from the outside and later turn into an independent process. As you can see, intrinsic motivation is the goal of education. It’s so vital that there should be a whole class on it!

Academic performance and student motivation

Good and Brophy (1983) said that the concept of motivation at school involves two specific things:


  • A student’s level of class participation.
  • The effort they put into homework, no matter what the subject or activity is.

They also said that there’s a moderate positive correlation (.34) between motivation and performance. On top of that, it’s a two-sided relationship because they both build off of each other. Basically, motivated students will have a high level of performance. That high level will then motivate students to keep their performance up.

It’s worth mentioning that in families with multiple children, there are usually major differences between each child’s academic performance. One might be much more motivated with schoolwork than another.

Students with added problems, like linguistic challenges, might work much harder to achieve their goals. They motivate themselves through a desire to do better. At the same time, some highly intelligent students end up getting comfortable with lower grades.

Keeping that in mind, there’s a good chance that students with high level abilities who are okay with their mediocre scores will start to fail more when they get to middle and high school. The problem is that they never internalized the value of making an effort. 

How to motivate students: a mother and her son with homework.

Encouraging a student’s intrinsic motivation

The problem gets even bigger if a child’s family doesn’t care about motivating them. How can you get a teenager to have intrinsic motivation if nobody ever taught them how?

For one thing, you have to make sure they understand what this concept involves. Then they can start to change the way they think about things. You also have to help teach them to visualize their goals. Because for example, if they never think about studying and it’s not a habit, help make it one.

Parents also need to learn other parenting styles. Some recommended ones are encouraging self-regulation and holding them responsible for their decisions.

McClelland’s human motivation theory

US psychologist David McClelland came up with a classroom motivation theory that involves these things:

  • Fostering a taste for new things.
  • Encouraging children to be curious.
  • Encouraging personal autonomy by using the outcomes of their schoolwork.
  • Learning how to self-evaluate.
  • Responsibility.
  • Parents insisting that they have high academic performance and get clear evaluations.
  • Moving more towards independence as they get older. 

Other motivation theories also say that a student’s self-evaluation is affected by different motivational variables, like their academic performance and the way they perceive their own level of effort and abilities.

Reading a book and studying with coffee.

The theory says that students who are very motivated to achieve (making an effort to stand out, fight for success, and achieve their goals) see their victories as a result of their skills and effort.They generally also have higher self-esteem than unmotivated students. It’s yet more evidence of something we can’t stress enough: the importance of encouraging students to be motivated early on.