Talking about motivating elementary students is easy, but it can be challenging to do in the everyday life of the classroom. Student motivation takes encouragement and effort by a dedicated teacher coupled with extrinsic and intrinsic motivational factors. Here are five student motivation techniques for the elementary classroom that encourage students to get enthusiastic, work hard, and dig into learning.
1. Use student-active teaching strategies.
Replace or supplement lectures and other teacher-directed classroom approaches with challenging learning activities that engage students’ brains, hands, and creativity. This technique can include cooperative learning through group projects along with individual project-based activities. Ultimately, student-active strategies equip and challenge learners to discover and master new information on their own. This approach works at nearly any grade level. One example of a student-active teaching strategy is Mindsets Learning, an EdTech that produces real-world challenges for middle school math and science students. Using these challenges, learners collaborate, predict, analyze, and apply their math skills to design a logo, predict sports stats, or determine the number of solar panels needed to power a building.
2. Emphasize praise over criticism.
As Aaron Orendorff, editor in chief of Shopify Plus, wrote, “Consequences help. Grace transforms. Shame never works.” Praise students liberally and be specific about what you’re complimenting. Replace a weak “good job” with an encouraging comment on an explicit area of strength. For example, you could say, “You worked hard and stayed on task all through math class today. I like that.” Likewise, keep criticisms focused on areas for improvement, and never direct them at the student’s personality or lifestyle, which can be shaming. In general, criticism is best delivered one-on-one. Though the “sandwich” is a popular method for delivering criticism, some students may figure out its trick and find it condescending. Just say what you need to say directly but compassionately.
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3. Focus on relatedness.
In Edutopia, Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher in California, wrote, “A high-quality relationship with a teacher whom they respect is a key element of helping students develop intrinsic motivation.” Ferlazzo offered four suggestions:
- Take a genuine interest in your students.
- Act friendly in other ways.
- Be flexible while keeping your eyes on the goal of learning.
- Never give up on your students.
One easy-but-effective way to develop appropriate relationships with your students is to ask about what interests them outside of school and homework. Don’t just absorb from them; share some of your own stories, too. While younger students are often keener to open up than older ones, a little persistence can go a long way in encouraging students of all ages to share about their lives.
4. Make extrinsic incentives easy.
Using extrinsic, or tangible, incentives is one the most common student motivation techniques used in elementary classes. Class stores and treasure boxes are examples of extrinsic motivators. If you choose to use this technique, keep the system simple; nothing is more frustrating than a reward system that students don’t understand or that teachers loathe to manage. Giving out “fun money” to motivated learners and then opening the student store every week or two is simple, and there’s no reason to turn it into the equivalent of a mortgage brokerage. This approach works best with grades K-2, though earning privileges, parties, and pricier items appeals to older students, too.
5. Plan your lessons in 5- to 10-minute increments.
Research shows that students as advanced in the education system as college can only pay attention in class for about 10 minutes before their minds wander. Early elementary students will not last that long without some change in activity or scenery. Vary your lesson plans, and include several short components, such as audio-visuals, art projects, science experiments, games, and brainstorming. Just using three or four different learning exercises per lesson can help fidgety students stay engaged and motivated.
Current classroom teachers who want to learn innovative strategies for improving student cognition in the classroom of the future can apply to Avila University’s online master’s degree in teaching and learning. Our program only takes two years to complete, and it includes courses such as technology’s impact on the classroom, student motivation and engagement, and project-based learning in a digital environment.