Motivating Your Students to Reach Beyond the Bare Minimum

You give the assignment:

Read the story. In your journal, write about what happened in the story.

Your student’s response:

James was being chased.

Oh, how infuriating it can be when your students only do the bare minimum required to complete an assignment! You know they are capable of so much more! So, what’s the best way to coax stronger work from reluctant students? When it comes to motivating students, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Bored little girl in elementary classroom.

Where Motivation Comes From

Understanding the psychology of motivation can be helpful when trying to find the right approach to use for your students. There are two types of motivation that drive everyone: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Motivation or internal reward that comes from truly enjoying or seeing the usefulness of a task. This type of motivation is evident in students who enjoy reading about new people or places or students who find that the answers to math problems just “click” for them, quickly and easily.

Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation that comes from external rewards. For your students, this can be receiving good grades, parent/teacher praise, or a prize/reward for good work.

While one type of motivation isn’t necessarily better than the other, it’s healthy for students to have a good balance of the two.

Encouraging More than the Minimum

Whether building internal drive or providing external incentive, here are a few ways you can motivate your students to reach beyond the bare minimum.

Vary Your Activities

When possible, create lesson plans that provide choices for how your students can demonstrate what they’ve learned. A student who puts little effort into writing a two-page report on a historical figure may go all out when given the chance to dress up like that person and present an oral report. Students are motivated when they can play up their strengths.

Build Their Stamina

Sometimes students settle for minimum effort because they struggle or tire easily from certain activities. Reading and writing can be especially burdensome for some students. Supplemental materials can be a valuable tool for giving extra practice and helping students build their stamina in areas where they struggle.

Offer Second Chances

When a student turns in an assignment and it’s easy to see that he rushed through it with less than his best effort, address the issue. Ask the student if he thinks it is quality work or if he is proud of the work he is submitting. When asked to reflect on their work, most students will be honest about their shortcomings. Give them a chance to continue working in the remaining class time or turn it in again the next day.

Praise Goes A Long Way

When a reluctant student does go above and beyond, take notice and offer praise. A short “Wow! Way to go!” jotted on an assignment, a phone call or email to a student’s parents, or pulling a student aside to share a compliment can make a huge impact when you’re trying to motivate students to do their very best work on a consistent basis. Make sure you focus your praise on the effort they put into a task, not just natural ability.

Do you have a secret ability for getting the best work out of your students? Share your best advice for motivating students!

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