How to Motivate Unmotivated Students

motivation for the unmotivatedUnmotivated students make teaching painful Motivation is a big issue for teachers.They refuse to participate in the learning activities and their moaning, groaning and negative attitude can quite often undermine your teaching.

We all know that praise has an impact on behaviour.

Praise works well on behaviour. It really makes a difference if the kids value the praise. Unmotivated kids are a different matter.

Unmotivated students are seldom motivated by praise about behaviour. You see, the reason these students are not motivated doesn't have behaviour implications.

Ask them to watch TV, play sport, use an iPad, they have no problems but unmotivated students lack of motivation towards learning.

Unmotivated students have an issue with learning. The task

  • may be too difficult,
  • may not meet their needs,
  • may be inappropriate to their beliefs.

What ever the reason, the answer is not a behavioural one.

Motivation for the unmotivated requires different strategies.

Praising unmotivated kids needs a different tact. We all know kids rise to encouragement. Their behaviour changes but not usually their attitude.

Some teachers go to extraordinary lengths to praise and cajole unmotivated kids. It just doesn't seem to have any impact. This can be immensely annoying. The kids don't seem to respond so the teachers just heaps on more praise on unmotivated students to no avail.

Let me offer some words of advice.

Stop with the praise already!

You cannot motivate a student unless the student sees themselves as a learner of what you are teaching.

A student won't become motivated unless they see themselves as a learner.

For some kids that as far away from reality as possible. They just DO NOT BELIEVE they can consume what you are selling.

It is like my level of motivation if you try to sell me a skate board. There is no way in the world that I will ever be able to skate. Or so I believe.

If you were teaching me how to use a sewing machine, I would be equally as motivated. I just don't see myself as a successful learner of what you are teaching.


In the classroom context, if you are teaching the addition of unlike vulgar fractions, your students will become unmotivated if they do not see themselves as a partner of this skill.


So you can praise the student for sitting up straight, writing neatly, play the classroom game of being quiet, putting their hands up until the cows come home. It won't change their level of motivation.

No amount of encouragement about classroom behaviours will make a difference to their motivation because they just don't relate to you as a receiver of what you are selling.

Intrinsic belief is the only thing that is going to make a difference. They are not going to jump through hoops to get a sticker or a star or their name on a good chart because they simply do not believe they can jump through hoops you have on offer.

These students need a success switch turned on. So, unlike what I have suggested in the past about finding them doing something good, ignore it. Don't heap praise on behaviours.

However, find the slightest learning success and ring the bells, raise the flags and stop the buses. They are on the right track to LEARN.

So what is they haven't mastered addition of fractions yet. But just suppose they were on track to find equivalence. This is when they need acknowledgement. Not the stuff where you release the pigeons, ignite the fireworks and have the tabernacle choir sing 45 versus of hallelujah.

The type of acknowledgement needed at this juncture is feedback. These students will respond to feeedback about where this success fits in the learning continuum.

“Fred, it's great that you can find equivalent fractions. That's the first step to solving addition problems.”

That will motivate Fred like nothing else will.

Fred now sees himself as a learner. A real learner. He is now a consumer of what you are selling. He can see his purpose in your classroom.

Patting Fred on the back without the productive feedback will have little impact.

But mention that Fred is about on track to successfully negotiate his way through the quagmire of addition of fractions and he will feel 10 foot high and bullet proof.

Motivation is self-sustaining.

Motivation is self sustaining. It is the internal power that generates its own energy.

How did you feel when you received your first smart phone? I bet the internal combustion of the motivation engine was pumping away. Why? Because you saw yourself as a successful smart phone user.

Fred needs to see himself as a successful adder of fractions.

The self belief that comes with positive feedback about performance will really make a qualifying difference to Fred's motivation.

Your positive feedback is now based on irrefutable evidence. You can see it and Fred can see it.

It is the black and white of performance indicators that is being highlighted.

Fred is now inspired.

Comments like, “Fred, that is a well constructed sentence. Your use of descriptive adjectives is powerful. I am looking forward to reading your completed story.”

And again, “Fred, you have some great research about the planet Neptune. I like how you included the history of its discovery. Your completed project is going to be very interesting to read.”

Can you see the common elements of this type of feedback?


Feedback about performance must

  1. Highlight clear unambiguous evidence of success.
  2. Explain performance indicators of what makes the evidence.
  3. Put this success in the context of the whole.


Giving this type of feedback is likely to inspire Fred into further action.

True motivation doesn't come about because of a fear of the consequences. It is about being inspired to succeed.

The positive feedback is performance based and honest.

For unmotivated kids, focus on the LEARNING not the behaviour.

It has to be all about the learning if you ever want to provide motivation for the unmotivated.

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