Three Ways [Almost] Guaranteed to Help Motivate Even The Most Unmotivated Student Pt 2

What name immediately comes to mind when you hear the phrase unmotivated student?

I’m sure we can all think of at least one!  The reason for [almost] appearing in the title is that despite all the research and advances in teaching theory and practice; despite the advances in our understanding of how the brain learns, and regardless of how motivated and passionate you are in the classroom the unmotivated student is here to stay.

There will always be students who despite our best efforts will refuse to engage.  It would be nice if there was a magic formula or we could program the students so they would respond according to our wishes but that’s not the reality of teaching.


That being said, there are some things that you can do to create a culture or an atmosphere that encourages the unmotivated student to engage in their learning.

In the previous post we looked at the first way [almost] guaranteed to help motivate unmotivated students which was to interrupt the cycle of failure.

Today we will look at the remaining two (obviously this is not meant to be an exhaustive list):

2.  Increase the autonomy of your unmotivated student

Another word for autonomy is choice.  Autonomy is the most important principle of intrinsic motivation.  The more choice someone has the more engaged they will be.  I can remember doing some research on the power of autonomy in student engagement and at the same time had the opportunity to attend the Google Teacher Academy (There is one coming up in New York on the 4th & 5th of October) to become a Google certified teacher.  It was there that I learnt about Google’s philosophy of giving their workers more autonomy over their tasks.  They called it 20%time.  It has been interesting to hear the term start to catch on in the education world.

Obviously we can’t give our students too much choice but you can start to look for ways to increase their choice.  Some of the ways I do this are:

  • Let the students choose between two assessment tasks
  • Let the students decide where to sit
  • Let the students decide where to go for an excursion
  • Let the students decide their mode of learning for the day

You will be surprised at just how far a little autonomy will go for an unmotivated student.

3.  Show the unmotivated student a value

We have got to understand that we say what we believe but we do what we value (that should go on your wall somewhere).  The unmotivated student can often be won over when they see the value of what they are doing.


  • I am not just talking about the value of learning (although this is important)
  • I am not just talking about linking this lesson to real life (although students need a context)

It could be something as simple as “If you want to go to lunch on time, you need to finish your work”.  They may not value the learning or the real life context, but if they value their lunch their motivation will suddenly increase.

At some point you need to move your students past this point to valuing their learning for what it is, but you need to meet some students where they are and incrementally cause them to grow in their intrinsic motivation and engagement.

I have found that when you:

  1. Interrupt the cycle of failure
  2. Increase the autonomy of you students
  3. Show your students a value

Even the most unmotivated student will [almost always] improve.

What are your thoughts?

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