Episode 6 – Nine Strategies for Motivating Students

Imagine your dream class. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel to be in such a class? I’m sure we would all have a long list of characteristics of this dream class. Certainly one thing sure to be on our list is MOTIVATED STUDENTS. We all want them. The trick, however, is how do we MAKE motivated students when they don’t walk into our classes already bubbling with motivation?

What is motivation?[1]

When we are motivated it means we are moved to do something. There are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. The level of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can go up and down; and the where that motivation is coming from can vary up and down the extrinsic/intrinsic spectrum.

Extrinsic motivation means you are doing something for an outside reward.[2] Kids who are extrinsically motivated will say things like:

  • “I need a B in to stay in Advanced English.”
  • “If I flunk my science test, my parents won’t let me hang out tonight. ”
  • “Our instructor will bring us donuts if we do well on today’s quiz.”

An advantage of extrinsic motivation is that with very little effort or preparation on the part of the teacher, behavior changes are readily produced. On the other hand, extrinsic motivations come with some disadvantages. Attention is often shifted to the actual motivation rather than on the subject at hand. Often, the extrinsic rewards and punishments have to be escalated in order to maintain the effect and rarely work over the long term. Once these rewards are removed, students lose their motivation.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence. Students who are intrinsically motivated will say things like:

  • “I love reading about World War II.”
  • “Learning math lets me see the world in a way that makes sense”
  • “I feel good when I am learning something new.”

Intrinsic motivation has the advantage of being long-lasting and self-sustaining. Efforts to increase intrinsic motivation are often the same efforts that teachers would use to help students become better learners. These efforts often focus on the subject rather than rewards or punishments.

Fostering intrinsic motivation can be slow to affect behavior and can require special and lengthy preparation.  Generating intrinsic motivation in students requires flexibility and adaptability on the part of the teacher as she chooses from a variety of approaches to motivate different students. Attaching an intrinsic motivator to each student requires the teacher to actually know her students and their interests.  Also, it helps if the instructor is interested in the subject to begin with!

It is a complex relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. The relative ease of using external rewards is tempting when confronted with the challenge of instilling internal motivations inside each individual students. These two sources of motivation are often in direct conflict with one another.[3]

Since intrinsic motivation is the true goal for teachers and students, let’s take a look at eight ways to increase student motivation. This list[4] is not ours, but we will add some math-centric suggestions as we go.


  1. Make it real

You have a much greater chance of instilling intrinsic motivation in your students if you are able to directly connect your subject with topics that are relevant to your students. Use local examples or events in the news to demonstrate the need to learning mathematics. Connect math to student culture, their interests, and even social apps online[5].

Some math-specific suggestions:

Real World Math: Robert Kaplinsky

Dan Meyer’s 3 Act Math Tasks

Mathalicious Lessons for Middle and Upper Grades

Get the Math


  1. Provide choices

In the TRU Framework for what makes good math teaching, one of its five dimensions is Agency, Authority, and Identity[6]. Students are given choice and agency in building their understanding of mathematics. We know that intrinsic motivation and student voice are directly correlated to each other. Providing choice can be as simple as allowing students to choose where they sit and with whom. Choice can get as complicated as allowing students to participate in self-assessment and self-reported grades[7].[8]

Some math-specific suggestions:

Math Workshop/Math Centers

Math Menus/Choice Boards

Genius Hour/20% Time



  1. Balance the challenge[9]

You’ve heard of the Zone of Proximal Development? It was than junk you had to learn (and then forget) during your student teaching days. ZPD increases intrinsic motivation when students work on tasks that are slightly above their ability to complete the task alone. Tasks that are too easy sends students the message of low expectations. Tasks that are too difficult create anxiety and hopelessness. Artful scaffolding by the teacher creates fertile ground for the student to grapple, experience “productive struggle”[10], and ultimately to build intrinsic motivation.

Some math-specific suggestions:

Low Floor High Ceiling Activities

Tasks on YouCubed.org


  1. Seek role models

Recent research shows that black students who have had at least one black teacher during elementary school are much more likely to graduate high school.[11] Having one black teacher between third and fifth grade reduced a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent.[12] Clearly role models is essential for black students, but it is beneficial for others as well. Female students are more likely to enter STEM fields when their mother is already in a STEM field[13].  For some students, teachers can act as role models – certainly there is evidence of this[14] – but a teacher cannot be a role model for all his students. Seeking additional role models is essential. Skype, Google Hangouts, and all the social media platforms make it each to bring role models from all around the world into any classroom.

Some math-specific suggestions:

Get the Math: Interviews of real people in real professions talking about how they use math.


  1. Use peer models

Students learn from each other[15]. Building a powerful collaborative culture in the classroom allows students to self-select peer models[16].

Some math-specific suggestions:

Peer Teaching

Cross Grade Level Tutoring


  1. Establish a sense of belonging

We’ve heard it before: Maslow’s Hierarchy. That pyramid includes love and a sense of belonging. Students with a sense of belonging to a community have a higher level of intrinsic motivation, stronger academic confidence, and are more willing to challenge themselves academically[17]. Teachers have a tremendous influence in whether students feel this sense of belonging.

Some math-specific suggestions:

First 20 Days by Fisher and Frey

Number Talks


  1. Adopt a supportive style

The teaching style that a teacher adopts lies somewhere on the supportive vs. controlling spectrum. A more supportive teaching style allows students to become more autonomous learners, which increases achievement, interest, enjoyment, and engagement[18]. Supportive teachers are more likely to listen to students, support students with appropriate scaffolding, offer encouragement, elicit student-generated questions, an invoke empathy.[19] Cognitively Guided Instruction strategies is a math-specific teaching strategy that involves listening to student thinking and offering appropriate supports and encouragement[20]. Teaching students metacognitive strategies has also been shown to increase student motivation[21].

Some math-specific suggestions:

Motivating Students: Scroll down to ‘Adopt a Supportive Style’ to see examples of supportive and controlling styles of teaching.

Cognitively Guided Instruction

Metacognitive Strategies


  1. Strategize with struggling students

When everything seems to be not quite meeting the needs of a struggling student, it is essential to not give up. Include the student in strategizing a way forward. This teaches the student self-efficacy and demonstrates the teacher’s faith in the student. Make a series of strategies with the student for moving forward: note-taking, tips for completing homework, and effective techniques for preparing for an exam. This is the time to assess (from the latin root word assidere “to sit beside”) different teaching strategies the student would like the teacher to try. This conversation has the added benefit of contributing to a supportive teaching style.

Some math-specific suggestions:


Concrete Representational Abstract (CRA)


Don’t let this big list overwhelm you! Pick one thing and work on it until it becomes second nature. Then add a second thing and work on it until both are second nature. And so on. Eventually, with some ebbs and flows, you will be doing all eight things with your wonderfully motivated students.






[1] “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New … – mmrg.” https://mmrg.pbworks.com/f/Ryan,+Deci+00.pdf. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[2] “Motivating Students | Center for Teaching | Vanderbilt University.” https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[3] “Turning “play” into “work” and “work” into “play”: 25 years of … – PsycNET.” http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-05867-009. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[4] “Motivating Students – SERC-Carleton – Carleton College.” https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/affective/motivation.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[5] “Connecting with students who are disinterested and … – SERC-Carleton.” https://serc.carleton.edu/resources/37504.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[6] “TRU Framework – the Mathematics Assessment Project.” http://map.mathshell.org/trumath.php. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[7] “Hattie Ranking: Interactive Visualization – VISIBLE LEARNING.” https://visible-learning.org/nvd3/visualize/hattie-ranking-interactive-2009-2011-2015.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[8] “What Teachers Say and Do to Support Students … – SERC-Carleton.” https://serc.carleton.edu/resources/37494.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[9] “Zone of Proximal Development – Scaffolding | Simply Psychology.” https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[10] “TRU Framework – the Mathematics Assessment Project.” http://map.mathshell.org/trumath.php. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[11] “With Just One Black Teacher, Black Students More Likely to Graduate ….” 5 Apr. 2017, http://releases.jhu.edu/2017/04/05/with-just-one-black-teacher-black-students-more-likely-to-graduate/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[12] “Research indicates that black children with black teachers less likely ….” 16 Apr. 2017, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/investigations/bs-md-sun-investigates-black-teachers-20170416-story.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[13] “Raising STEM Daughters | Working Mother.” 1 Mar. 2016, http://www.workingmother.com/raising-stem-daughters. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[14] “Gender matters – SERC-Carleton.” https://serc.carleton.edu/resources/37491.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[15] “Successful Learning: Peer Learning: Enhancing Student Learning ….” http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/success/sl13.htm. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[16] “How Peer Teaching Improves Student Learning and 10 Ways To ….” 7 Jun. 2013, http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/peer-teaching/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[17] “Sense of Belonging in College Freshman at the … – SERC-Carleton.” https://serc.carleton.edu/resources/37489.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[18] “Motivating Students – SERC-Carleton – Carleton College.” https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/affective/motivation.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[19] “ERIC – Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style toward ….” https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ865122. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[20] “Cognitively Guided Instruction | Partners In Learning | Miami University.” http://performancepyramid.miamioh.edu/node/319. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

[21] “Effects of Metacognitive Instruction on Learning and Motivation.” 4 Feb. 2016, http://www.apa.org/pubs/highlights/podcasts/episode-05.aspx. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.