Motivating Your Students to Succeed

11/28/2012  |  Barbara R. Blackburn

Do you teach students who are intrinsically motivated? Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s the sense of working toward something simply because we want to or because we feel a sense of accomplishment, and it is relatively easy to know when a student is intrinsically motivated. Students are motivated internally when they pursue an activity independently, enjoy the activity, don’t want to stop working until they are finished, move beyond the minimum expectations, and don’t care if there are rewards attached.

Foundational Elements

Intrinsic motivation has two foundational elements:

  • People are more motivated when they value what they are doing.
  • People are more motivated when they believe they have a chance for success.


Students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to learn if they value what they are asked to do. There are five building blocks to add value to your classroom:

  1. Variety
  2. Attractiveness
  3. Locus of Control
  4. Utility
  5. Enjoyment


Students are motivated when they are not asked to do the same thing over and over again. What is your least favorite routine task? If that is the only thing I did, I would be miserable. That, however, is exactly how our students feel about some classes. When students view learning as drudgery, they are less likely to be motivated to work.Variety is enhanced when you make a lesson attractive.


Attractiveness means integrating elements of curiosity and novelty into your lessons.

Charlene Haviland, a teacher in Norfolk, Virginia, has developed lessons that incorporate this concept. She uses the Harry Potter books to teach science concepts. “For a discussion on the flying broomsticks used in the game of Quidditch, Haviland said, ‘We can even go into Bernoulli's principle and explore how we can take that from flying on a broom to ... how airplanes work ... and why some fly better than others.’” I don’t know about you, but I’d sign up for that class quicker than I would a class on aerodynamics.

Locus of Control

The third building block, locus of control, refers to a student’s need to feel as though he or she has some control, or choice in a given situation. If Marissa feels trapped because she is always told what to do, she is less likely to be motivated. If students have ownership in the learning—if they have believe they are a part of the learning experience, rather than simply being told what to do—they are more motivated.


Students also need to see the utility, or relevance in learning. When I do workshops with teachers, I know they come into my session with one burning question: “How can I use this information immediately?” Adult learners are juggling so many demands, they prioritize activities and their attention based on how well something meets their immediate needs.

It’s important to answer that question for students.  Whether you teach algebra, English, science, or social studies, we should be able to show the relevance of the lesson to students.


The final block for building value is enjoyment. Students are more motivated when they find pleasure in what they are doing. Often, students are more motivated and engaged when they are actively participating in their own learning.  Working in small groups, discussing learning with a partner, or completing a science lab are examples of lessons many students enjoy.

Building Blocks for Achieving Success

Students are motivated when they believe they have a chance to be successful. And that belief is built on four additional building blocks:

  • level of challenge
  • prior experiences
  • encouragement
  • beliefs about success.

First, the difficulty level of an activity and match of that with a student’s skill level is a major factor in self-motivation. Imagine that you enjoy playing tennis. You have the opportunity to play against Venus Williams.  How do you feel?  In that situation, there’s plenty of opportunity for challenge—probably too much challenge! For optimal motivation, the activity should be challenging, but in balance with your ability to perform.

That’s a struggle for most teachers; but that is the foundation of our jobs—starting where a student is, and moving him or her up to increasing levels of difficulty and providing appropriate scaffolding for learning at increasing levels.

Second, a student’s prior experiences are an important factor. I’m more likely to believe I can be successful in science if I’ve been successful in other science activities. On the other hand, if I’ve had multiple negative experiences reading poetry, I’m less likely to want to read poetry, since I don’t think I can.

A third building block to feelings of success is the encouragement a student receives from others. Encouragement can be in the form of words or actions.  This differs from praise.  Praise focuses on what a student has accomplished; encouragement occurs while a student is working and helps students make progress by helping them see that sense of accomplishment.

It’s also important for students to read and learn about people who failed before they succeeded, because the final building block is a student’s beliefs about success and failure. Many students view failure as the end rather than as an opportunity to learn before trying again. How you define success and failure drives many of your beliefs about your own ability to succeed. Read about people who have overcome failure, and bring in role models who can discuss success and failure.

A Final Note

There are ways teachers can help students succeed, even if they have not in the past. Activating value and success will help your students succeed at higher levels.

For more information visit
Comments & Ratings