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BlogClassroom Instruction that Works

Finding motivation to put forth the effort

By October 13, 2009June 14th, 201615 Comments

One of the research-informed strategies from the book, Classroom Instruction that Works, is Reinforcing Effort. Many students don’t make the connection between success and effort. Often they think that other students achieve because of luck, who they know, or born-in abilities. If children don’t think that they have any of these factors in their favor, they may assume that they have no effect on their chances for success. It is up to the community, parents, and educators to make sure children do understand that effort can result is achievement. It’s at the core of the American Dream.

McREL is often called to struggling communities where motivation is a big issue. Many of these communities have the most difficult of circumstances such as high poverty, unemployment, teen pregnancy, drug use, and violence. Yet, once in a while we come upon a community that despite the odds, is succeeding in motivating their students to succeed. Some of the schools in these communities were documented in McREL’s Schools that “Beat the Odds” report. When we look closely, we find school leaders that look for ways to motivate students. Sometimes it’s simply finding a way to reward good behavior. For instance, a high school principal in Poplar, Montana makes a small difference by realizing that students want a safe place to socialize with friends. So she provides a supervised common area for students in order to motivate them to try harder in school. They can play the Wii video game, socialize with friends, or just relax with a book as reward for their efforts in school.

Increasing student effort boils down to finding out what is important to them and finding ways to use it for motivation. A large example of this is Project Citizen ( As you can see from the embedded movie below, Project Citizen Educators from around the world help students find an interesting community problem. Then they work together to find solutions. Not all problems get fixed, but enough do to teach the lesson that effort does pay off in success.

Having positive role models also improves intrinsic motivation to succeed. If students see successful people like themselves, they believe that they can do it too. One of the best ways to provide genuine role models is by using the ones already found in your schools. For instance, a school counselor could start a peer-partner program that connects screened and trained role models from upper classmen at the high school with struggling students in the middle school. Or, educators could put together a summer camp to motivate urban boys or girls using young successful students from their own community. An example of this is shown in the video below.

Sometimes you may need to find mentors from higher education to motivate students. In the video below, the Expanding Your Horizons program is shown to motivate girls to pursue STEM fields.

McREL is also doing work in this area. We have begun work on a three-year project to design and study the effects of a two-week, summer science program designed to encourage high school students to enroll in high school chemistry call “Cosmic Chemistry”. In what ways have you seen schools in struggling communities beat the odds and motivate students to put forth a strong effort?

by Matt Kuhn

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Thomas Jassman says:

    I truly agree that finding a piece of individual student motivation is the key towards helping students improve their effort in learning.

  • lsorensen says:

    As with most of our efforts, those that give promise of working are often forestalled before the promise is fulfilled. How do we motivate state lawmakers to give the time and needed to implement good, researched based solutions?

  • Tonya Torpey says:

    Motivation is the key. The bigger issue is how to tap into that motivation and make it work for that individual student.

  • Mindy Sheckler says:

    At an alternative HS setting it is so important to determine what is actually important and motivating to the students. Since so many of them are on their own it may be more intrinsic.

  • Greg Huskey says:

    It is also true that many students in today’s classrooms are not motivated by any new or innovative ideas. How do we reach these students?

  • Finding intrinsic motivators is hard with all students, but especially alternative school students.

  • Dianne Ross says:

    This issue has prompted me to revisit what I have used in the classroom. I have accomplished the positive and the negative, so would like to plan more positive.

  • Matt says:

    Hello Greg, sometimes it takes some digging, but all people are motivated by something. Often with children, it goes back to simple, but important needs such as those found at

  • Bo Belanger says:

    This is one of the biggest problems I face. I teach at a private school and sometimes I get the feeling that the students feel that their parents have sent in the tuition and they don’t have to do anything else. I teach AP and honors history classes and the students are so apathetic. They want to memorize a bunch of useless facts instead of really trying to learn how to think. I feel as though I am hitting a brick wall. I try interactive, lecture, student-led discussions, teaching with primary source documents, using visuals, offering bonus points, etc.

  • Matt says:

    Hello Bo, this article might help you out.

  • Meganmarie Dennis says:

    I am really interested in using mentoring programs for motivation at my school. I feel that many of our students would benefit from haveing a positive role model. Right now I am working with our school counselor to set up a program and I am trying to decide between haveing high schoolers mentor my 6th graders or haveing the 6th graders mentor youngers studetns or both. Any ideas?

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Hello Meganmarie, I was once a mentor in a HS student program way back in the day. It was called “Peer Partners.” There is a book about it at It might make a good book study for your mentoring group. I think having student mentor students is one of the most effective ways to really get to a struggling teen.

  • Kaladia says:

    While finding motivation that triggers effort is the key we must be careful not to elicit extrinsic reward based thinking. Motivating student effort this year is where I devoted progressive classroom-community based strategies employing student manpower and technology to move the learning forward. I employed to my students that putting forth effort is an expected behavior and that journey to learning is a reward in itself. I focused on a community based classroom where a sense of safety, security, and trust were built. I promoted “their thinking” and “participation” as their most valuable assets. I told the students that it was not enough for a few of us to learn the concepts but we all needed to learn so the importance of cooperation moves the community forward (whether assisting their seat partner or being attentive in a group or ensuring they were displaying appropriate learning skills while instruction was being presented so as to not be a distraction to other who may have needed extra support). I integrated technology in my teaching to make it more interesting and called for the students to take ownership of their learning by training them how to use the equipment and facilitate practice sessions using the technology. I also use teacher assistances who also were responsible for operating, passing out/collecting, use the interactive student selector to randomly select the next student to contribute to the learning sessions. There were still some reluctant learners in the bunch and student encouragement was used to give that extra push. For many this ignited that intrinsic motivation because they begin to build self efficacy. Students begin to collectively protect our learning time and prevented negative efforts of the one student who not until later in the year decided that learning was not his priority from sabotaging our established community. I used the manpower of the students to move learning forward. I did use the student of the day desk which was a trapezoid table with a rollie chair for students who displayed exceptional practice of expected behaviors but many times as students were free to move up close to the interactive board for read alouds and shared learning it was not considered by all as the best seat in the house. I also used a weekly class reward on Friday for the last 15 minutes of the day – social time together. This year’s assignment was a 4th grade class of 19 students: 9 of the students looped up with me (1 was double promoted from 3rd to 5th in the 1st week – he had been retained in 1st grade), 6 were returning students to our school, and 5 of the students were new to the school altogether. I have been teaching at my current school for 2 1/2.

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Kaladia make a good point. We should focus on intrinsic reward systems and classroom culture. There are plenty of external motivators that are already built into education (report cards). We don’t need any more of them. I believe in about 70% intrinsic motivation and 30% extrinsic motivation as an effective mix. I don’t have any research to back that percentage up; it is just my gut feeling. In my own job I hope that I do what I do mostly out of intrinsic motivation, but I realize I probably would not do it if I were not paid (extrinsic).

  • Motivation is very important to children to keep on going. I must say that it’s a part of our daily lives.

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