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What I wish I had known about student motivation

By March 15, 2012June 14th, 201660 Comments

“You’re a smart kid; I just wish you’d apply yourself in my class.”

Most teachers have uttered a similar phrase. I know I did. I remember one student particularly well; we’ll call him Jerry. His quick answers and witty insights—when he paid attention—told me he was smart enough to be doing better than he was.

My pep talks with Jerry never did much good, though. Sometimes, the more I goaded, the less he tried, which frustrated my ambitions of channeling Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society, inspiring students to hang on every word of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Emily Dickinson. It felt like even if I stood on my desk dramatically reciting “O Captain! My Captain!” Jerry’s response would’ve been the same: meh.

Sending students the wrong message

Years later, while digging into research on student motivation, I realized what I had gotten wrong. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that telling students they are smart actually lowers their motivation and achievement. In an experiment, Dweck and her colleagues treated two groups of students quite differently. They consistently praised one group for its ability, saying things like, “Wow. You got eight right; you must be really smart.” They praised the second group for effort: “Wow. You got eight right; you must have worked really hard.”

The students hearing continual praise for their ability developed a “fixed-mindset” and came to believe that achievement or “smarts” was innate, not developed through effort. Consequently, they began to avoid challenging tasks, fearing that if they tried and failed, they no longer would appear smart. On the other hand, 90 percent of the students hearing praise for their effort took on more challenging tasks and found they actually enjoyed the work.

My first mistake, then, was telling Jerry he was smart.

My second was trying to guilt trip him. I played on the fact that Jerry seemed to like me, saying, “Come on, you really should read The Scarlet Letter. Do it for me.”

The right kind of teacher talk

Edward Deci, who spent his career researching intrinsic motivation, found that motivation stems from two deep psychological needs: competence and self-determination. We enjoy challenging activities if we choose them. Even positive feedback from teachers can undermine motivation if it comes across as coercing students (“You should keep up the good work.”). What’s more effective is providing feedback on how students measure up to a defined standard.

What I realized, too late, was that teacher talk is incredibly important. When teachers aren’t thoughtful about what they say in classrooms or write on papers, they can chip away at students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.

Here are a couple of examples I’ve drawn from research showing “should” and “should nots” when it comes to teacher talk.

Say this (growth mindset) . . . “Your practice is really paying off. You’re getting your math facts down.”

Not this (fixed mindset) . . . “Wow, that was quick! You blazed right through those problems! You’re a math whiz.”

Say this (growth mindset) . . . “You seem frustrated and tired right now. That means your brain is working hard. We’ll keep at it, and I know you’re going to get it.”

Not this (fixed mindset) . . . “Not everyone is a natural at this. Let’s do a few more problems and then move on to something you’re better at.”

If I could do it over again with the benefit of hindsight, I’d tell Jerry something like this: “You’ve got a lot of potential. Right now, it’s going to waste. I’d like to help you unleash it, but that’s up to you.”

What kind of teacher talk did you hear when you were a student?

Read about Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.

Learn more about Edward Deci and self-determination theory.

Written by Bryan Goodwin, author of Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.

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.


  • Trish Redman says:

    Useful article. Motivating Year 10 students in maths can be a soul destroying task

  • Rebecca says:

    I had the exact same scenario with my own ‘Jerry’. I will have to think about some ‘growth’ mindset phrases to use instead!

  • Ms Burgess says:

    I’d be very interested to hear about ways you (or other educators) have illustrated for students the relationship between effort and achievement. I’m thinking of trying to use a simple, non-linguistic representation of this relationship – particularly with my juniors (years 7-9). Thanks.

  • beverley says:

    This might be a reason bright kids don’t fulfil their promise

  • Anna says:

    I am going to try speaking to my students in the ways you have suggested, as the question of how to motivate them keeps me awake at night! I just hope my ‘open mindset talk’ is not swamped by the ‘fixed mindset talk’ they have receive so often.

  • Melissah Thomas says:

    I wish I had read this article at the beginning of the year, and particularly before student-teacher interviews this year. I confess: I have been sending a few individuals the wrong message.
    Your examples were helpful. I will be researching more into this relationship between motivation and teacher talk.

  • Lou Turner says:

    Interesting article. On a related topic, I found it very hard to tell students they were incorrect in responses to questions early in my teaching career. Instead I would twist their response so it was ‘vaguely’ correct. Since changing my feedback style to be clear regarding the accuracy of student responses, I’ve seen increased engagement and achievement. I think students are more resilient when it comes to feedback than we often give them credit for.

  • G Bertoli says:

    When talking about ‘Teacher talk and motivation’ I’m often astonished by what I hear, even by administrators and leaders whoi are supposed to model ‘appropriate’positive reiforcement and provide rcognition for effort. It is nnot really ingrained in our system. What I mean by this is that I make ‘Language’ errors with my students due to the way I’ve been spoken to and still am now .WWWWOOOWWW!!!!!

  • Teaching is incredibly fast paced leaving teachers to make hundreds of decisions a day. In the moment, teachers need to hope they are making the right decisions. I agree with you. Teacher talk is so important to our students. Everything you say and do has a direct impact on their learning lives. I am absolutely guilty of telling my students how smart they are, especially my reluctant learners. Your post certainly made me reflect on my own language that I use in the classroom. I liked your suggestions to adjust the way a teacher responds to a student. I have asked, “Did you put effort into your work?” I have said, “Wow, you are finished already- you must be an expert.” The whole time thinking, I am really building their confidence. This was a learning experience for me. Thank you.

  • Jessica Laing says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article and it made me reflect on how I talk to my students. I’m a Physical Education Teacher and I constantly tell my students how great they are doing with certain units.I feel this is causing the lack of motivation in my class due to the fact they probably think they are all professional athletes and they don’t have to work hard anymore. I’m going to try a couple of the examples you gave to try and increase the motivation and learning in my classroom. Thank you, this was a great learning experience for me

  • Aaron Mattingly says:

    I enjoyed this article because it was so insightful. You described what I heard as a child, and what I have said as a teacher, in the very first line – “You’re a smart kid. I just wish that…” I like how you have coined the term growth mindset, it will stick with me and I will use it.
    I have a student who thinks that the most important thing is being the first finished, never mind the quality or correctness of the work. Recently, I have been redefining what it means to be ‘first’ for him. First is not always first finished, it may be that first means the neatest handwriting or the student who demonstrates kindness or the one who takes care of their belongings well. This has worked to a certain degree but I think this growth mindset may really change matters even more so. Obviously I want this student to do well, not just finish first all the time.

  • S. Jolly says:

    I have a “Jerry” in my class. He is so bright, but his nonchalant attitude toward learning is incredibly frustrating. I appreciate how you have demonstrated the correct way to say common phrases that we tell our students every day. The manner in which communicate with our students is crucial to their success in the classroom. I teach second grade, but I am also in the middle of coaching high school soccer. The way in which I speak to these age groups is not that different. I constantly try to motivate my students and players to believe in their abilities, but I now realize my words may need to be altered. The term “growth mindset,” is the phrase I am going to keep in the back of my mind when I speak to my students.

  • Jennifer Wood says:

    This article was very inspiring and touching to me. I believe positive teacher talk is so important in young students live. I remember comments that my teachers made to me when I was so young. For example: When asked “What do I wish for?” (in third grade) , I responded “ To be very Smart”. Now, I do not exactly remember word for word, what my teacher said to me, but I remember her saying a message to me about keeping up the great work ethic, effort, and positive motivational words. She motivated and encouraged me to try my best at school. Her words have always stayed with me through the years. I often think about her, and how she made me feel about myself. This is why I believe, what we as teachers say to students is so important and we must be very sensitive to them and their needs. We need to think, about the years to come. Will they remember us in a positive way or as that teacher who was sarcastic and un-motivating? I feel that growing up my teachers never focused on who was the smartest or received the highest grade. It was more about effort, enthusiasm and attitudes.

  • Kimberly says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. It is interesting that I often find myself trying to motivate students with phrases like “You guys are so smart!” but it can totally backfire. My goal next week is to steer clear of those sorts of phrases, and discuss more with students about their effort and how hard work pays off.
    I do have one student though who has difficulty with spelling tests because she does not study at home (and when she does, she does great!). I tell her every time she does poorly that her effort is what will change her grade. If she works hard, she will do well, etc. She point blank tells me that she doesn’t want to work hard, but she wants to get a good grade. Sometimes I just do not know what to do to motivate her.

  • Kayle Stevenson says:

    I was inspired by your article. I found myself thinking about the comments I say to students on a daily basis. Do my comments give students a ‘growth mindset’ or ‘fixed mindset’? I also have a “Jerry” in my class that does not work to his full potential. It seems like no matter what I say, it does not motivate him to work harder.
    I am grateful that I read your post and am definitely going to try to steer clear of the ‘fixed mindset’ comments. I will make a more conscious effort to use ‘growth mindset’ comments that inspire students to work harder. Thanks for the wonderful ideas!

  • Lyn N says:

    I know a teacher who used to present a workshop on this very topic. It was called To Praise or Not To Praise. He shared multiple articles on research regarding the topic of praise. The general idea is to offer encouragement and recognize effort rather than praise. Very interesting!

  • Mrs. Lince says:

    I found this article very interesting. It is amazing how much our words can affect our students. This is just a reminder to us that we should be mindful in our language usuage.

  • Robyn says:

    Some of my students have self- esteem issues. I try to motivate them with positive feedback or praise. I also try to remind them our smart and wonderful they are as students and children. From this point forward I will encourage my students to continue to working hard and to keep practicing instead of using the word smart. Thank you for the growth mindset phrases!

  • Beau says:

    This article makes a lot of sense. In my school, we talk about telling kids “you did it”. The philosophy behind this is informing kids when they have accomplished something rather than acknowledging they are smart. If anyone is interested, it is Conscious Discipline.

  • C.Call says:

    I found this article to be amazing and very informational. Every teacher should read this because how many times do you think the wrong things are said to child, my guess is a lot. I know from my days in the elementary years the teachers weren’t saying the best things to all their students. This is killing many students motivation when we should be helping it grow. I am still very shocked as I sit here how this impacts students everyday.

  • Ulrika says:

    My school has talked a lot about having a fixed or growth mind set this year. I think it has been really valuable to reflect on how I give feedback to my students, and how I word things. Being more aware has caused me to consciously try to use the language of growth mind set, and highlight how hard the student is working.

  • Catherine Olivares says:

    This article left me with a lot to think about. I have said very similar things to students over the year about being smart and it has backed fired on me several times. I am very interested in learning more about his “fixed mindset” and recently check out the book. The examples and what we say and then what we should say was also very helpful. I need to do better at creating a “growth mindset” in my classroom.

  • Ramona says:

    It is so true that words can have such an impact on children. Thinking about this article, I often do the wrong thing…praising them the wrong way. I really enjoyed reading it and I think I am going to do a little more research in this area. I think that motivating students is one of the things that a lot of teachers struggle with, because without motivation, learning is not fun and definitely not easy. Do you recommend any other books regarding this matter?

  • rhonda says:

    I have to agree with the one of the above comments about why bright kids don’t reach their fullest potential. Even GROWN folks would like to have a little praise every now and then on their jobs. I know that this has to effect students and how the respond to your teaching efforts.

  • Shikha says:

    This article made me think a lot about the things that come out of my mouth when praising students. I too am guilty of doing much of the “fixed mindset” talk with my students, and am now aware of how much more effective the “growth mindset” praise can be. I have a few students that I am struggling with motivation and I am excited to try a better way to offer praise for all my students. I really enjoyed the insight and advice provided in the article. Thank you for making me pause and improve my method of delivery.

  • Geri Adams says:

    I found myself nodding at most of what was said by the author of this article. I too take on characters to try and motivate students in reading particular texts for specific objectives. I think we have all had “Jerry’s” in our class and I always stood by the efforts (Growth Mindset) status and how it can help students but have made the mistakes of using the fixed mindset teacher talks as well. After reading this article I found that I was reflecting back on my advanced placement classes and how most of those AP students came to have the entitlement attitude. Interesting what a tweak of a couple words can do to make a huge difference in the lives of students successes.

  • Excellent reading, I especially enjoyed your “do it for me” statement. Some teachers need to revisit or completely revamp the wording of their praise because they are guilty of giving students a false sense of their intellectual inferiority as well as superiority, which is just as pernicious. At my school this problem is especially pervasive right now as our high stakes state testing week begins one week from tomorrow and the verbal “encouragement” that I hear some teachers using to motivate students is appalling, which I wrote about in my blog.

  • Ibrahim Kai-Samba says:

    could someone help to say whether the two responses below may be do’s or don’ts? In trying to motivate students, I will:
    -Celebrate every victory a student makes with a hug, pat on the back, thumbs up, or some other gesture aimed at elevating the student’s self confidence.
    -Try not to directly rebuff a student’s idea(s) when wrong, but rather respond with inspirational words.

  • Alicia Schnitzler says:

    Wow, this is very insightful. I often find myself telling children they are smart when they do things quickly or get every question right. I never thought about the process and how hard they worked to get to where they are. I hope to refine the ways I talk to and encourage students so that they value hard work and effort and think they can do things if they work hard at it. I too have used the guilt trip method which is a horrible idea because it is not a long term solution and the child learns no intrinsic motivation from it. Now, in response to Ibrahim Kai-Samba I think that praising achievements is a good thing because it will motivate students to keep working hard because you acknowledge that their hard work has paid off. I would say that after reading this post that you need to praise the hard work that the student put into whatever they may have achieved. I definitely think that this is a good way to raise confidence levels because students feel accomplished and when someone notices their hard work, they feel even better. They feel like their hard work was all for a good cause, especially when a teacher notices it. As far as when students give a wrong answer I agree that you should not just flat out say no, you’re wrong because that is embarrassing! i think that inspiration words are a great thing. Saying things like nice try but not exactly what I was looking for is a nice way to let them know they were wrong but that their effort is appreciated. They will not feel embarrassed or discouraged and will not want to shy away from answering a later question that is asked because they feel safe even if their answer may be incorrect.

  • Charmaine says:

    WOW! I wished I had known this in the beginning of my teaching career! I probably created a couple of Jeremys along the way.
    I had a transfer student (I’ll call her Abi), and she seem to have this false sense of her abilities. And although she was high (in reading and math), she didn’t put any effort into any of her projects. When I asked her why, Abi said that her other teacher (from where she came from) told her she was very smart, and she knew all the things we were learning. Then come to find out she did not know what the lesson was on because I spoke to her teacher. I think we all need to be mindful of how we motivate students.

  • Lydia Johansen says:

    I was recently reading an article for my education class about how intrinsic motivation is increased when the teacher provides informational feedback about a student’s performance. I was reminded of it here when I read about how we should encourage a “growth mindset.” I like the idea that we want to move them away from their “fixed mindset” of what they think they know about themselves, and challenge them to analyze the quality of their work so they want to take more responsibility for what they do.

  • Karen Brastoff says:

    Wow, thank you so much for this article! I have been trying to say more “growth” comments to my students than that “fixed mindset” comments this school year. I have a specific student (2gr. male) who seemed to want to keep his “smarts” secret this year, claiming that it is not cool to smart. He asked me not to compliment him this year (which I thought was really weird). Instead, I commented on his hard work, or time put into his projects, and he seemed ok with those comments. Your article really pulls in what he was trying to say, and makes me think about the way I talk to my other students. Now, I will definately be aware! Thank you!

  • Danielle P. says:

    What great suggestions, not only for teaching but parenting as well. I love the examples given and after reading this article I have really stopped and thought about how I have been phrasing certain positive comments. Thank you.

  • Katlyn says:

    Wow! This article was amazing! I never thought about the way that I was praising kids could be discouraging them. This was so interesting to me, and I cannot wait to apply it in my own classroom and see what results I get from my students.

  • Megan says:

    This article was great to read. The student, Jerry, reminded me of a particular student in my classroom. Unfortunately, I fell into the, “you are really smart…” mindset with the student when I should have been in the growth mindset. I look forward to changing my words and mindset with future students.

  • Leah says:

    ‘Jerry’ reminds me of one particular boy I had this year. I was constantly feeding him with how smart he was and how quickly he could get an assignment done if he would just do it. I will definitely be changing my language I use towards my students. What a great advise to use expecially in a school where there seems to be a lot of under motivated students.

  • Renata Stewart says:

    I enjoyed your article. Our words, although truthful or honest, not intentional mean or discouraging, maybe negatively received by our students thus negatively affecting their self esteem and impeding their work performance.

  • Kalwin Kephas (@KalwinK) says:

    This is an eye opener for me because I have been doing the don’ts. No wonders kids stop getting involved and start being passive watchers. At home, I am thought I was motivating, seems that I am destroying that. Is this also true with adult learners? Where can I get more sample of those good motivators.

  • Carol says:

    I wish I had learned this before I had children. My son has a fixed mind-set, and I’m quite sure I contributed to it.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Mindset should be required reading for all educators. I find myself listening to how educators talk to students and listening for fixed and growth mindset statements. Next, listen to parents when they talk with their children!

  • Lisa says:

    This is a thought provoking article and really should make us stop and think about how we interact with students. We do not mean to harm students but may do so inadvertantly.

  • I’ve always been careful to make my comments and praises to students positive and reassuring, but this article has opened my eyes to how I should be speaking to my students.

  • Kadie Ramsey says:

    This article makes so much sense. At my school we have been discussing ways to motivate students. There has been much debate on whether there should be rewards, like dances, or if we should focus on intrinsic motivation. It seems like the way to achieve a lasting impact would be motivating students through encouragement. I cannot wait to take this information back to my school.

  • H. Lyons says:

    After reading this article I realized that I am guilty of using comments in my classroom that would often fall under the “fixed mindset” category. I never realized that telling someone he/she is smart could have negative effect, but after reading the article it made a lot of sense. I think that all teachers and parents should read the article and reflect on their own practices. As role models and leaders we need to improve student motivation and continually researching ways to do so is essential. I am going to take this article back to my school at the start of the new school year and share it with my colleagues because the information it contains is relevant and could be useful in improve student motivation within our school. The resources listed at the end of the article have now become of great interest to me and I think further research will only benefit my students and will help me be a more effective teacher.

  • M. Connolly says:

    Reading this post helped me realize the importance of growth statements instead of fixed statements. Very few students will feel motivated after hearing a fixed statement. Fixed statements might determine for a student what they feel they are good at. Making sure educators are aware of the difference of the statements is important. We want to motivate our students to be the best they can be. It is important for us to recognize their hard work and frustration. Otherwise students will assume learning is always meant to be easy and requires little thinking.

  • Jeff says:

    This blog has opened my eyes a little when it comes to student motiviation. I am as guilty as the next teacher when it comes to making statements that lead to that “fixed mindset.” As a teacher I need to think more about what I say to the students. I know that I am just trying to help, but what I say may sound different to the student. The last thing I want to do is cause a student to take a step back in their learning. After reading this blog I feel I have a better understanding of what to say to help those students that need a nudge sometimes. Thanks for this informative article.

  • Lindsey says:

    This article really made me think about the day-to-day conversations I have with my students. I am a teacher who is guilty, at times, of having a “fixed mindset.” This article will allow me to grow in my ability to continue to motivate my students by having “growth mindset” conversations.

  • Rosalina Gencarelli says:

    This was a very intriguing article! As I read it, it allowed me to reflect on how I communicate with my students in the classroom. It also made me realize sometimes how we praise students can have a negative impact on their abilities. I enjoyed reading the examples and insight of how we should be communicating with our students! Thank You!

  • Derico White says:

    This article was a very good read. I think that as educators, we want to encourage those students that perfom well, or put forth a good effort, as much as possible. However, we sometimes go about it the wrong way. I know for sure, that I have told students that they are smart or very intelligent, and it probably has curved their motivation to put forth maximum effort. Although, I believe that I have been doing a better job with sending the right kind of messages to my students lately. I just had a conversation with my class of high achievers today, about the importance of not settling for “good”. A few of the students took exception to the message, eluding to the fact that they had better grades than most of the students on the team. However, most of the students took the message to heart, and realized that they had plenty of room to improve. Again, thanks for posting this article, and I enjoyed reading all of the comments.

  • They praised the second group for effort:

  • Beth says:

    The article was a great reminder that what we say as educators can really motivate or shut down our students. It was a great reminder to me to encourage effort. When I go back to my classroom on Monday I am going to be more aware of what I am saying to my students and increase my effort comments.

  • Tammy Craig says:

    I have been reflecting on my role in motivating students. Although I have read many articles on classroom practices, developing a caring relationship with each student individually, and collaborative learning as essential strategies to engaging students, this is the first time I have come across an article that discusses the impact of our words. Interestingly, the other day I happened to view a parenting expert on tv discussing over-praising our kids. Her view was very similar to yours. If we constantly tell our daughter she is a good girl, or our son that he did a good job. Instead, praise their improvement over a previous performance, or identify that their effort made a difference. There is an even greater impact if you ask them how they feel, so they aren’t getting the idea that they don’t have value without receiving praise from us as parents and teachers. In my classroom, I have felt that praising a student for doing well on a test will motivate them to continue putting a strong effort in for future tests or assignments. This article made me wonder for the first time about how many students may not have put any effort into their work, but still got a great mark on a test. If I praise that “accomplishment”, I am probably encouraging them to not try because it worked for them this time. Interesting isn’t it?!
    I will definitely pay more attention to the words I use, both verbal and written, in the future.

  • GProctor says:

    This blog was very insightful. I reflected on previous conversations and remarks with students and realize, I too am guilty of having a “fixed mindset”. I will become more responsible of my words on how I praise and reprimand students.

  • Tamar Awadikian says:

    This article made me reflect on the way I praise my students or even how I give them a remark. It is very important to take in consideration the way we talk to kids. Sometimes without paying attention we can put a student down or even give them self-confidence more than we should.
    For instance my colleague had this experience in which she gave lots of confidence to one of her high achievers in term 1, surprisingly this student ended up joining the middle group ability.
    Thank you for sharing such an important article and raising such an essential issue.

  • Asheda Maccow says:

    Great article. Thanks for the suggestions. I’m having difficulty motivating my students at the Vocation high school that I work at. I never thought about the way I’m praising my students would be wrong.

  • As a educator and based from experience, intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic. But its effectiveness is based from the the students’ attitude. If the learner is serious, motivated and love schooling, then intrinsic motivation is best for them. But if the learner is uninterested and doesn’t like schooling, then, extrinsic motivation is best for them.

  • I am a teacher. And I must agree with your post. Aspiring teachers must read your blog.

  • Motivation refers to encouragement and appreciation of accomplishment and one way of uplifting people to do their best. There are two kinds of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to rewards inherent to ask, example the love of playing, the love of teaching. Examples of additional external motivators include praise, charting successes, and earning rewards such as stars, a treat, time to play tapes or computer games, or more recess time. Point systems that reward children for improved attention, learning, accuracy, productivity, and behavior have particularly powerful effects on their learning rates and spontaneous use of learning strategies. For example, a teacher can award points for meeting each of four class rules: stay on task speak nicely, follow directions, complete assignments. These points accumulate toward a prize or privilege. Thus, it depends to the teacher what kind of motivation he/she has to use based on the kind of personality of his/her students.

  • Danielle says:

    I loved reading this article, especially because I start the school year next week and I really want to start off on the right foot. This made me think and reflect on how I interact with students and what kind of praise I give them. This will definitely help me to be more conscientious. Thanks for sharing!

  • University Online Help says:

    Pretty Helpful Material, Much Thanks For This Article

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