Jenna Gilfillan, M.Ed

BetterLesson Instructional Coach

As we wrap up another school year, teachers often note a marked decline in student motivation as the weather warms and the promise of summer fun clouds the mind. It is common to see an uptick in behavior challenges and distractibility.

Whether you are seeking ideas for this year or next, I’m happy to pass along my favorite resources for the recurring dilemma: How do I motivate my students to want to excel?

What factors drive intrinsic motivation?

Three factors proven to increase intrinsic motivation include autonomy, belonging, and competence, otherwise known as the ABCs.

When we can examine motivation within ourselves, our students, or our colleagues through the ABC lens, we can more easily identify opportunities for increasing engagement.

Strategy 1 – Choice Boards

The Choice Boards strategy is one of the most popular BetterLesson strategies because of the way it increases motivation by offering opportunities for autonomy and competence. I’ve seen them used for projects, skills practice, stations, assessments, early finishers, enrichment, homework, and more. Here is a simple one a fourth grade teacher and I recently developed to plan a writing task for his students.

Start by identifying the learning objective. Then, consider multiple ways that students can work towards mastery of that objective. For example, if the goal is improving multiplication fact fluency, they might choose between making flashcards, making a Quizlet, or playing Multiplication War against a friend.

Already a Choice Board connoisseur? Try a similar strategy such as Blended Learning Playlists.

Strategy 2 – Interest Surveys

Interest Surveys are a quick and easy way to increase a sense of belonging. There are endless ways to make use of this tool, such as asking students to give feedback on preferred learning activities, asking about their book or topic preferences, different project types, or even gauging their interest in assessment styles.

This is a surefire win with adults as well. Teachers are more enthusiastic and engaged when they play a role in selecting the professional development or implementing a school-wide initiative. My preferred surveying method is Google Forms, but there are tons of other options, such as the live feed features within Poll EverywhereMentimeter, and Peardeck.

Already an Interest Survey pro? Try Love Language as Praise Preference (available with a BetterLesson account) or I Wish My Teacher Knew.

Strategy 3 – Individual Progress Tracking

In order for students to recognize their competence and be motivated by their progress, they need to have access to their data.

Some teachers use data notebooks and others use checklists or rubrics. During his student-led conference this winter, my kindergartener showed us the line graph he uses to track the improvement he’s made with counting and number recognition. . The second graders I tutor color in a bar graph to track their minute math fact improvement. A third grade teacher I coach uses a simple 1-4 rubric to offer feedback on reading comprehension skills which the students transcribe into a table pasted in their interactive notebooks. Older students are able to gain a better understanding of their strengths and areas for growth by charting their testing performance by the standard. Here is an example of a skills-based progress monitoring chart a middle school teacher and I designed to gather baseline data and allow students to track their progress.

When students own their data, they gain a sense of autonomy because they better understand themselves as learners and can make informed decisions about their academic goals, thereby increasing competence.

Strategy 4 – Personalized Pathway to Mastery

We know that our students have varying strengths, skills, and competencies. One way to offer differentiation that allows students to move at a more personalized pace is through a Hyperdoc Pathway. This strategy is intrinsically motivating because it allows students to process information  within their Zone of Proximal Development, the sweet spot between frustration and ease, where we feel challenged yet capable. A favorite among the BetterLesson community is the Mild, Medium, and Spicy format. Students are able to start at a level that feels within their reach and within the same task, and have opportunities for review (mild) or enrichment (spicy). This allows for built-in scaffolding, and modified pacing—just what so many students crave. Students might approach this like a video game, moving from one “level” to the next, or they might use it to choose a tool for practice or application of a concept. The autonomous nature of this process allows students to operate within their Zone of Proximal Development so that they can most efficiently build competence.

Strategy 5 – Strategic Relationship Building

The single most influential factor in student achievement is having strong, trusting relationships that offer a sense of belonging. There are many ways to build relationships with students such as regular class meetings, student-teacher conferences, or charting strengths.

Here are two of my favorite tricks to set teachers and students up for success when you start the next school year:

Tip 1- Know and Appreciate Names 

On Day 1 ask each student to say their first and last name and something they enjoy. As they share, record the phonetic pronunciation of their name and the interest they shared. Repeat back their pronunciation until you have it right. Refer back to your notes to make certain you are pronouncing their name correctly and to build relationships by discussing their interest. This simple, intentional act models respect, and inclusivity, and shows individuals that you see them and you hear them, critical components of belonging.

Tip 2-  Positive First Contact

Make a phone call home for each family sharing something you appreciate about their child. You might leave a voicemail that sounds like this:

Hi, this is Jenna Gilfillan, Leo’s teacher. I am calling to let you know how much I am enjoying getting to know Leo and how much I appreciate the ___ (enthusiasm, effort, kindness, creativity, charisma…) he brings to class each day. We’ve already had some nice chats about ___(music, frogs, Harry Potter, soccer, baking…). I look forward to enjoying the rest of the year with him!  Have a great afternoon!” 

The 3 minutes it takes to make this phone call will pay off in dividends for the rest of the year because it generates a sense of belonging for both the students and their parents. This will help you earn the respect and trust of parents which will be critical, especially if you have to report something less pleasant later in the year.

As you reflect on these strategies and the ABCs of motivation embedded within them, consider areas in your life in which you feel highly motivated. Do you experience autonomy, belonging, and competence in this environment? As an educator, which of the ABCs do you consider strengths, and which do you strive to improve?