In the Classroom

How to Motivate Students: Tips for Your K-12 Classroom

One of the biggest struggles that teachers are seeing in the classroom right now is the lack of student motivation. Though this has been a growing problem for years, the pandemic exacerbated the issue. There are so many ideas out there that explain how to motivate students, but so many of them include rewards. This can get tedious (and costly) and often when the reward disappears, so do the students’ interests. Implementing behavior management without incentives is a great way to create a learning environment that focuses on successful intrinsic motivation and learning experiences.

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is when someone performs a behavior because they find it interesting, enjoyable, or personally satisfying. In other words, the person is doing the activity for its own sake rather than to earn a reward. Research has shown that people who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to persevere in the face of difficulties and to be creative in their thinking.

Intrinsic motivation is important because it leads to more successful learning experiences. When students are motivated by something within themselves, they are more likely to be engaged in the material and to persevere when things get tough. Additionally, intrinsic motivation has been linked to higher grades and test scores, as well as better social and emotional outcomes.

The best way to make this part of the learning process is to design lessons and activities that are interesting and engaging. This is probably the biggest “eye roll” inducing comment, isn’t it? But it’s true. This can seem like a challenge, but there are some ways to increase the likelihood that students will find what you’re teaching interesting. All you need to do is hook your students, just a little bit, to get the ball rolling.

This process may not work overnight, but the slow burn will be worth it as you watch the scales tip and your students become excited about your classroom.

Extrinsic Motivation

When we first think about motivating students, we immediately go to extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when someone performs a behavior in order to earn a reward or avoid punishment. For example, if a student knows they will get a treat, ticket, or point if they complete their assignment, they are extrinsically motivated to do so.

Extrinsic motivators can be useful in getting students to comply with rules or complete simple tasks. However, research has shown that when it comes to more complex tasks or long-term goals, extrinsic motivation can actually be detrimental. This is because when students are focused on the external reward, they are less likely to be engaged in the task itself and more likely to give up when things get difficult.

So, what’s a teacher to do? The key is to find a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation should be the primary focus, but there is a place for extrinsic motivation as well. For example, you might use extrinsic motivation to get students to try something new or to persevere when they are struggling, but then once you give them that small hook, you weave your lesson to promote their intrinsic motivation instead.

The important thing is to make sure that extrinsic motivation is not the only thing keeping students engaged. If it is, then you run the risk of losing them as soon as the incentive is gone.

How to Implement Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom

There are a few key ways that you can increase intrinsic motivation in your classroom.

Set Goals:

Make sure that your students know what the goals are for each lesson or activity. When students have a clear understanding of what they are working towards, they are more likely to be engaged in the material.

You can also set more long-term goals for your students that they keep up with through self-reflection. Here is a great product to help you achieve this with minimal effort on your end.

Make it Relevant:

Students are more likely to be interested in something if they see how it applies to their own lives. Find ways to connect the material to your student’s interests and experiences. Bring in guest speakers (this is much easier to do now that everyone is used to virtual presenting), look at case studies, book virtual (or regular) field trips, etc.

When teaching about the Great Depression, I had my students look at the homeless rate in our county and then write letters to our local representatives to compare the two and come up with ideas to help the problem. I hit every standard and allowed the students to take ownership in addressing an issue in our own community (and gave them the autonomy to do something about it).

Allow for Choice:

When students feel like they have some control over their learning, they are more likely to be motivated. Allow for choice whenever possible in terms of assignments, activities, and projects. For example, if you are working on a unit about the Civil War, you could allow students to choose which battle they want to focus on, what type of project they want to create, or even what role they want to play in a simulation.

The more ownership students feel in their learning, the more engaged they will be.

Encourage Effort:

Make it clear to your students that you value effort over intelligence. This is a tough one for some teachers, myself included. We want our students to be successful, so we focus on finding the right answer. However, research has shown that when students believe that they can improve with effort, they are more likely to persevere when they face difficult tasks.

One way to do this is to avoid using phrases such as “you’re so smart” or “good job, you got it right.” Instead, focus on the effort that the student put into the task. For example, “I can tell that you worked really hard on this project” or “it looks like you put a lot of thought into your answer.”

When students feel like their effort is valued, they are more likely to continue to put forth that effort, even when things are tough.

Provide Feedback:

Students need feedback in order to improve. Make sure that you are providing specific, positive feedback that is directed towards the effort that the student is putting forth. For example, “I like the way that you used color in your drawing” or “I can tell that you practiced a lot, your singing has improved so much.”

Avoid comments such as “good job” or “nice work.” These types of comments are too vague and don’t give the student any information about what they did well.

If you focus on the process and not the product, you are more likely to increase intrinsic motivation in your students.

But What About “That” Student??

This is the point where most teachers say, “This is great, but I definitely have a defiant student who won’t respond to this….at all.

I understand because we’ve all been there.

Since the pandemic, it certainly seems like there are more of these students than there ever have been before.

I shared this TikTok by @annalieseerinparentcoach on my Instagram. It’s focused on parents, but I want you to really think about the message here for a minute:

I want you to understand something:

You can set up all the systems and processes that are effective that you can research, but if a student’s needs are not being met on a most basic level, they won’t matter.

The first step in addressing this is to really take a step back and look at the whole child. When you do this, you may find that the reason they are acting out is that they are hungry, tired, or just need someone to talk to.

If you can address those needs, you may find that the student who was once “defiant” is now much more receptive to your systems and processes.

There may also be something way beyond your paygrade that is the issue at hand. The best suggestion I have is to do whatever it takes to try to get that student to trust you enough to form a relationship with them that makes them want to do right by you. This doesn’t mean that they will turn into a model student, but if you can get them to be less of a nuisance because of small incentives that attempt to find different ways to find positive reinforcement techniques that work for that student, you win.

The bottom line is this:

You can’t just focus on academics when it comes to intrinsic motivation. You have to consider the whole child. Even external rewards won’t be effective if that particular student has external factors that hone in on their self-determination theory.

The good news is that different types of learners will always respond to instructional strategies that give them a sense of autonomy, even if they are going through a difficult time.

This does not mean there needs to be a tangible reward to fix an unmotivated student. You may find some fun activities that spark a genuine interest in the subject matter. This may take trying a lot of different teaching methods in your lesson plan, and that’s okay.

Your teaching style will reflect that growth mindset and good behavior will follow a great teacher. Will it be perfect? Absolutely not. However, you are handed a difficult task of encouraging students’ motivation, but hard work in this pivotal role will improve students’ lives whether you see it today or a long way from now.

Stop Driving the Teacher Struggle Bus

Are you struggling with student engagement, apathy, or keeping your class on track? 

💫💫 There’s hope! 💫💫

Join my free teacher workshop “Choosing Choice” and in just 45 minutes, you’ll craft a practical plan to revitalize your teaching. Discover the magic of student choice in boosting engagement, gain quick implementation ideas, and explore strategies for year-long success. 

Unlike overwhelming workshops, my approach guides you in real-time, providing more classroom options, reducing stress, and giving you more personal time. 

Plus, you’ll earn a 45-minute professional development certificate and have 7 days of access. 

Don’t miss this chance to transform your teaching; click below to secure your spot now!

choosing choice: student choice: How does it work? What do you do? Can it work in my classroom? Join my free workshop

After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a truly student-centered one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction to ignite intrinsic motivation in their students.  Read more about her journey with Student-Centered World at

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