To increase student motivation, help students take ownership of their learning

3 Simple Tips to Build Student Motivation and Engagement

What is student motivation? The eighth wonder of the world? The secret ingredient in a highly effective classroom? A mere mirage amidst the sands of late assignments and questionable effort?

Student motivation is all these things and more. And never has it been more elusive than in this era of online learning.

But lest we forget, online learning didn’t kill student motivation. As I think back on the thousand or so students I taught, only a handful were genuinely motivated from within.

Sure, almost all of my students did their work. And most of them did it well. But making an effort isn’t the same as motivation. 

True motivation, intrinsic motivation, means finding joy in the work we do. Believing that our efforts are aligned with our values. And that the work we do will help us become the person we want to be.

How many of us see this type of motivation from our students?

Manage, Lead, Support: A Framework for Student Ownership

We all want to see more effort from our students. And there are three general approaches we can use.

The Manage, Lead, Support Model helps build student motivation and ownership

Management: A management approach involves the use of positional power, or punishments and rewards. Grades, phone calls home, and detentions are all ways that we compel students to meet our expectations, whether or not they feel motivated.

Leadership: When we lead students, we use personal power to guide them toward our expectations. We are still setting expectations and nudging students towards them. But instead of punishments and rewards, we build relationships and help students see the benefits of doing what we ask.

Support: When students are ready to take ownership of their learning, we can move into a supportive role, helping them to achieve their goals. This approach can be challenging in a traditional school system. Students will need wide latitude in deciding how they will meet grade level expectations. Or if they will meet grade level expectations.

For more detail on these three approaches, read this article.

Most educators are not prepared to give students complete control over their learning. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to motivate our students.

Whether you rely mainly on management, leadership, or support, the strategies below will make your approach more effective. And, each will help you to gradually build student ownership and increase intrinsic motivation.

Student Motivation Strategy #1: Student Surveys

If you haven’t given your students a survey recently, do so tomorrow.

Surveys may be the easiest and most effective way to build student motivation. They help students feel like their voices are heard. And they help teachers reflect on our practice.

At first, I was reluctant to ask my students for feedback. After all, my job is to give them feedback. Not the other way around. I just wasn’t confident enough in my teaching to give them the chance to criticize me.

If done poorly, student surveys can backfire. One school I taught at conducted official course evaluations each year. Students rated the quality of our teaching (strike one). They were given at the end of the year (strike two). And they went straight to admin (strike three). 

This is the exact opposite of how to conduct a survey. Students do a terrible job of rating the quality of their teachers – most just rate you the way you grade them. Since ours were done at the end of the year, they had no benefit for student motivation. And they were conducted by and for admin. So they didn’t help us reflect on our teaching, we just focused on getting high scores. (Sound familiar?)

Student surveys can build student motivation
Example of a good student survey question

Student surveys should be given regularly. And the questions should be about the students, not the teacher. Ask your students how much effort they put into your class. Most will be reluctant to admit they’re not trying. A high rating in this area will reflect positively on your teaching. And it creates a commitment from them, to live up to their own self-evaluation.

Just asking students about their experience will increase motivation. If you actually incorporate their feedback, you’ll get even more buy-in and become a better teacher.

Student Motivation Strategy #2: Goal-Setting

Goal-setting is another effective strategy for building student motivation. Too often, students feel like they are working towards our goals, rather than their own. 

Working towards someone else’s goals, is basically the opposite of motivation. Especially when you have no input into those goals.

We can’t give students absolute freedom in creating their goals. Of course, they still need to work towards grade level expectations, respect class norms, and so on. But just going through the process of thinking about, and writing down, your goals is a powerful motivator.

Introduce students to the idea of SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Sensitive.

Structuring goals this way avoids setting vague goals. You set a date that your goal should be completed by, and it should be clear that you have either achieved the goal, or failed to achieve it.

I have a Google Slides activity that walks students through the steps of setting goals. We complete it as an in-class activity, or I go through it with them individually.

Don’t assign it as homework. You’ll need to guide students through the process, especially the first time. This ensures that their goals will move them in the right direction. They will also likely need help understanding how to create meaningful SMART goals.

Online Workshop: Motivating Students Online

classroom management workshop for online student engagement and motivation

In this workshop, you’ll explore practical strategies to improve student engagement, motivation, and behavior during online learning. These research-based strategies that will help you develop positive teacher-student relationships and promote student ownership of learning. Session includes resources and planning guides that you can use to start engaging and motivating your students the next day!

Save Your Seat!

Student Motivation Strategy #3: Conferencing

It’s well known that students learn best and work hardest when they have good relationships with their teachers. But it can be hard to create authentic relationships in class. There are too many students vying for our attention at the same time.

Hence the importance of conferencing. A traditional school calendar makes time for parent-teacher conferences. But what about student-teacher conferences?

Most teachers meet with students who are having academic or behavior issues. But few of us meet regularly with all of our students. I pulled students aside, I made conversation in the halls and I made myself available during office hours. But it wasn’t the same. And during online learning, it’s even harder to have spontaneous check-ins.

To really be effective, your conferences should be scheduled. Make sure to meet with each student for at least five minutes each month. If you teach 100 students, it will take about two hours per week. If you have a homeroom of 25 students, conferencing with each student for 15 minutes every month will take about an hour and a half per week. 

It is a significant time investment, but completely worth it. And it doesn’t matter if you use the time to make small talk, work on goal-setting, or focus on academic needs. Conferencing regularly with your students will support their success and save you time.

You’ll spend less time chasing down missing assignments and calling home for behavior issues. Think of all the things you do that your students should be doing for themselves. By conferencing, you can start transferring all of these responsibilities back to your students.

Getting Started

Each of these approaches provides a simple and straightforward way to build student motivation. And using all three together can be incredibly powerful.

If you’d benefit from one-on-one support with classroom management and student motivation, we can help. Schedule your free consultation today, and learn how you can become the teacher you’ve always wanted to be. 

For more help getting started, enroll in our upcoming classroom management and student engagement workshop. This is a real-time, online session with a live facilitator. Registration includes all the resources you’ll need to motivate and engage your students in a live or online classroom.

Save My Seat!


Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff