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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE of the Classroom #6: Motivation

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

This is post #6 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams. This post contains excerpts from my book Take CHARGE of the Classroom.

There’s a hidden variable in the equation of student achievement. The way I viewed it at the time, curriculum (content) multiplied by pedagogy (execution) equaled achievement.

Curriculum x pedagogy = achievement

If my students weren’t successful on the final exam, then I needed to either do a better job of finding a quality curriculum or executing the lesson plan. Through my experience with my students, a formerly missing variable emerged as the mediator of both curriculum and pedagogy.

(Curriculum x pedagogy)motivation = achievement

As hard as I tried to teach and create engaging lessons, the students had to meet me there. All my blood, sweat, and tears were wasted if I couldn’t bring the students along with me. If they weren’t motivated, I’d never help them be as successful as I wanted them to be.

Biology and chemistry, fractions and poetry hold little intrinsic value to some students. They don’t think they’ll ever use that information in the real world and, if they do, they figure they can simply Google it. Without relevancy, some students will never engage with school no matter how many flashing lights we parade in front of them.

Other students disengage because of a lack of connectedness. They don’t feel like they are a part of a larger learning community, whether it be their classroom or even their school. They feel distant, alone, and adrift in a sea of facts and figures. When they don’t sense a strong human connection with others, either teachers or peers, many students lose the drive to push through difficult content and learn.

If students aren’t thriving in school, and we can reasonably assume that the curriculum is solid and the instructional practices are sound, then we must look elsewhere for solutions. The students themselves hold the key to increased engagement and achievement. If we can figure out how to motivate them, or more accurately, tap into the facet of motivation that most inspires them, then classroom management becomes an afterthought.

Engaged students rarely, if ever, misbehave.

What can you do tomorrow?

Reflect on your own motivation. Think about what motivates you to succeed in academic tasks. Your default teaching style will cater to this motivational drive.

Expand. Now consider a student that sometimes does not show interest in learning. Think about what they do enjoy and see if you can discover the disconnect. Adjust an upcoming lesson to include what motivates them to learn.

What does this look like in the classroom?

The teacher motivates students to engage in learning by:

· Offering students choices and opportunities to lead lessons;

· Highlighting real-word connections within the curriculum; and

· Providing timely feedback to build students’ competence.


Some students are highly motivated by competence. When they feel like they are able to accomplish a task, they feel engaged and ready to learn. They love building their proficiency through sequential learning. More importantly, these students need to have an expectancy of success. If they feel like the task is too difficult and out of their reach, they will quickly lose interest.

Other students get much more out of the classroom when they have built positive relationships with others. Usually the teacher, though sometimes with peers, these students need the connection of other human beings. They thrive on cooperative learning and working with a partner. They best process information by talking things out with a friend and they love to connect their learning to their own lives. Relational learners thrive in the dramatic arts and literature, exploring the human condition and reveling in the stories of others.

For some, the key question is not, “What are we learning?” but, “Do I have to?” Autonomy can make all the difference to some students. After being told what to do, what to learn, where to sit, and how to answer questions for their whole life, some students feel the need to break free. A lot of passive-aggressive behavior in the classroom is a result of teachers trying to exert too much control over these students. For every instructor that makes it her mission to keep order in the classroom, there are several students willing to accept that challenge head-on.

If you’ve ever been asked, “Will this be on the test?” or “Is this for a grade?”, you’re getting signals that you are instructing a predominantly value-motivated student. For these students, relevancy is everything. If what they are learning somehow connects to them or something important to them (e.g., their grades), then they learn easily. If it seems pointless or useless, however, engagement is elusive. Some students value learning for its own sake while others value learning to accomplish a goal. It might be getting a good grade, helping accomplish a larger aim like getting into college, or getting a good job. Either way, these learners evaluate learning tasks through the filter of value.

Finally, some students’ emotions serve as their primary motivational facet. If the classroom is fun, or an activity is game-like, then they are all-in. If it’s a more sterile, factory-like atmosphere, however, they will find it hard to muster enough energy to participate. A key emotion to cultivate in these learners is interest. When their curiosity is piqued, their natural inclination will be to explore and engage. If these students suffer emotional distress, either in or out of the classroom, it will greatly affect their academic behavior.

What can you do tomorrow?

Evaluate your instruction. Use the five facets of student motivation (competence, relationships, autonomy, value, emotions) as a filter through which you evaluate your instructional design. Look to see which students are sometimes disengaged from learning and whether or not their motivational needs are being met by your normal instructional practices.

Implement your learning. Adjust an upcoming lesson to incorporate all five facets and note the difference in student engagement.

What does this look like in the classroom?

The teacher designs engaging instruction that includes:

· Differentiated tasks to meet individual student needs;

· Activities that are fun and light-hearted; and

· Social interactions between the teacher and students and/or between students themselves.

To read more posts in this series, click here.

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