Some Ideas for Motivating Students

Some recent research shows that many students do poorly on assignments or in participation because they do not understand what to do or why they should do it. Teachers should spend more time explaining why we teach what we do, and why the topic or approach or activity is important and interesting and worthwhile. In the process, some of the teacher's enthusiasm will be transmitted to the students, who will be more likely to become interested. Similarly, teachers should spend more time explaining exactly what is expected on assignments or activities. Students who are uncertain about what to do will seldom perform well.
J Reward.
Students who do not yet have powerful intrinsic motivation to learn can be helped by extrinsic motivators in the form of rewards. Rather than criticizing unwanted behavior or answers, reward correct behavior and answers. Remember that adults and children alike continue or repeat behavior that is rewarded. The rewards can (and should) be small and configured to the level of the students. Small children can be given a balloon, a piece of gum, or a set of crayons. Even at the college level, many professors at various colleges have given books, lunches, certificates, exemptions from final exams, verbal praise, and so on for good performance. Even something as apparently "childish" as a "Good Job!" stamp or sticker can encourage students to perform at higher levels. And the important point is that extrinsic motivators can, over a brief period of time, produce intrinsic motivation. Everyone likes the feeling of accomplishment and recognition; rewards for good work produce those good feelings.
J Care.
Students respond with interest and motivation to teachers who appear to be human and caring. Teachers can help produce these feelings by sharing parts of themselves with students, especially little stories of problems and mistakes they made, either as children or even recently. Such personalizing of the student/teacher relationship helps students see teachers as approachable human beings and not as aloof authority figures. Young people are also quite insecure, and they secretly welcome the admission by adults that insecurity and error are common to everyone. Students will attend to an adult who appears to be a "real person," who had problems as a youth (or more recently) and survived them.
It is also a good idea to be approachable personally. Show that you care about your students by asking about their concerns and goals. What do they plan to do in the future? What things do they like? Such a teacher will be trusted and respected more than one who is all business.
J Have students participate.
One of the major keys to motivation is the active involvement of students in their own learning. Standing in front of them and lecturing to them (at them?) is thus a relatively poor method of teaching. It is better to get students involved in activities, group problem solving exercises, helping to decide what to do and the best way to do it, helping the teacher, working with each other, or in some other way getting physically involved in the lesson. A lesson about nature, for example, would be more effective walking outdoors than looking at pictures.
Students love to be needed (just like adults!). By choosing several students to help the teacher (take roll, grade objective exams, research bibliographies or biographies of important persons, chair discussion groups, rearrange chairs, change the overhead transparencies, hold up pictures, pass out papers or exams) students' self esteem is boosted and consequently their motivation is increased. Older students will also see themselves as necessary, integral, and contributing parts of the learning process through participation like this. Use every opportunity to have students help you. Assign them homework that involves helping you ("I need some magazine illustrations of the emphasis on materialism for next week; would someone like to find one for me?").
J Teach Inductively.
It has been said that presenting conclusions first and then providing examples robs students of the joy of discovery. Why not present some examples first and ask students to make sense of them, to generalize about them, to draw the conclusions themselves? By beginning with the examples, evidence, stories, and so forth and arriving at conclusions later, you can maintain interest and increase motivation, as well as teach the skills of analysis and synthesis. Remember that the parable method of making a point has some significant historical precedent.
J Satisfy students' needs.
Attending to need satisfaction is a primary method of keeping students interested and happy. Students' basic needs have been identified as survival, love, power, fun, and freedom. Attending to the need for power could be as simple as allowing students to choose from among two or three things to do--two or three paper topics, two or three activities, choosing between writing an extra paper and taking the final exam, etc. Many students have a need to have fun in active ways--in other words, they need to be noisy and excited. Rather than always avoiding or suppressing these needs, design an educational activity that fulfills them.
Students will be much more committed to a learning activity that has value for them, that they can see as meeting their needs, either long term or short term. They will, in fact, put up with substantial immediate unpleasantness and do an amazing amount of hard work if they are convinced that what they are learning ultimately meets their needs.
J Make learning visual.
Even before young people were reared in a video environment, it was recognized that memory is often connected to visual images. We can provide better learning by attaching images to the ideas we want to convey. Use drawings, diagrams, pictures, charts, graphs, bulleted lists, even three-dimensional objects you can bring to class to help students anchor the idea to an image. .
J Use positive emotions to enhance learning and motivation.
Strong and lasting memory is connected with the emotional state and experience of the learner. That is, people remember better when the learning is accompanied by strong emotions. If you can make something fun, exciting, happy, loving, or perhaps even a bit frightening, students will learn more readily and the learning will last much longer. Emotions can be created by classroom attitudes, by doing something unexpected or outrageous, by praise, and by many other means.
Being energetic in your teaching is a motivating factor in itself; adding energy to the ideas you want to convey will further enhance learning and commitment to the ideas.