How To Build Motivation

by | Jul 26, 2015 | Effective Practice, Teaching Struggling Readers

Does the skill of motivating others come naturally, or can it be learned?


What gets you out of bed in the morning – particularly, during the holidays? The attraction of a nice warm bed and a book is often a stronger pull than being up and outside – especially if the British summer has arrived in the form of endless rain! The cosiness and precious opportunity to dwell in another world for a few hours can far outweigh the more mundane world that awaits us. For others, that first glint of daylight is all that is needed to be up, showered and outside ready to tackle the multitude of jobs that have accumulated over the term. Staying in bed for even a minute after waking would be unthinkable!

What we find satisfying, we find motivating. But we all find different things satisfying, don’t we? What one person finds enjoyable another finds unpleasant. One person’s Marmite is another’s disgusting black goop.


So, what motivates different students? Some teachers believe that education should be its own reward, and we certainly see students for whom this is true – they are keen, work hard, produce great work and get superb results. For others it’s like pulling teeth to get them to do any work. Why? And is there anything in our power that we can do to change it?

For some teachers, their charm is enough to have students eating out of their hands. For others, the secret is in the force of their personality – no child would dare not to comply. These are qualities that people bring with them to their teaching. Does this then mean that unless a teacher is charming or forceful that they will be ineffective? Do teachers have to rely on external sources of motivation like charm or dominance in order to have students do what we know they need to do? Or can the skills required to motivate students be learned, and can students’ motivation be shaped over time?


Most people would agree that it takes at least a few weeks for a new behaviour to become a habit. Going for an occasional run is unlikely to become an embedded habit, but if I timetable a run every second day for six to eight weeks, it is likely to become habitual. Most habits are hard work at first, but over time they become satisfying: for example, as we enjoy the benefits of improved fitness. We may not enjoy expending the effort, but the satisfaction comes when the exercise is over.

It’s the same with students. It’s easy to assume that the behaviours that we expect are already in their repertoire, but sometimes they need to be taught. Some students have never had to learn persistence, so as soon as a task becomes difficult they give up. They may never have experienced any overt consequences for giving up. No one has taught them how to deal with failure or how to push through when things become difficult. We need to teach students how to persevere or they will not experience long-term success; they will not practice and keep trying until they master the necessary skills or knowledge.


The process is necessarily incremental: such habits obviously develop over time, and this requires perseverance and a systematic approach on the part of the teacher, as well. Because we tend to be highly motivated, we can overlook the necessity to teach and reinforce certain skills enough times for them to become habitual. So how do we help students to become more intrinsically motivated?

I have found it very helpful to see the conditions and consequences of student effort in terms of ‘Levels of Reinforcement’. The following scale is adapted from and is designed as a framework that helps teachers plan to move from more extrinsic to more intrinsic motivators. It also means that we can avoid using inappropriate motivators for students who are already well on their way to being self-motivated learners.

Here are three key principles:

  • Aim to move from more intrusive to less intrusive consequences.
  • Always pair a reinforcement with another higher up the scale (i.e. more intrinsic)
  • Have a plan to fade out the more extrinsic element over time.


1 Challenging oneself for self-evaluation purposes – the student is setting their own goals challenging them to improve on previous performances. Generally this would be seen as a student being fully self-motivated.

2 Deciding how to learn the material – the student feels trusted to succeed, and this trust (and success) build confidence.

3 The work products affect the look of the classroom – the student is having an impact on the environment in which they and their peers work. They share ownership of the space.

4 The student decides upon the conditions under which they work – increased autonomy and exercise of personal choice can be very rewarding.

Reinforcers above this line are more relevant for highly motivated learners

5 Response topography – choice about how their work will be presented.

6 Social approval – recognition for effort, progress, achievement.

7 Special privileges – including time with teacher, leading a group, etc.

8 Contingent activities (Premack principle) – preferred activities are contingent on completion of the target behaviour e.g. successfully completing maths problems each day earns time on the computer at the end of the week.

9 Tangible rewards – physical but not edible. NB We use such rewards to establish the right behaviours, then find new, less extrinsic, ways of maintaining and improving this behaviour. (Normally not appropriate at secondary school.)

10 Edible rewards – small edible treats which should only be used to quickly establish an important behaviour, and then moved away from as soon as possible. (To be used rarely and with care.)



  • Something is only a reinforcer if it leads to an increase in a target behaviour. It’s not just ‘nice’ items, activities or praise.
  • Not everyone finds the same things motivating.
  • Some things will screw up the way that the contingencies above work – for example, it’s helpful to know when a student is using a medication that affects their mental state. (It can be easy to misinterpret why a student seems drowsy or is ‘not getting it’.)

I think most of us make a great deal of use of (6), social approval. We use attention and praise to motivate students. However, we need to find ways to move students on from here by moving ‘up’ the scale. There are also some students who don’t seem to find our praise or approval that motivating – perhaps there are competing factors like peer attention getting in the way. For these students, it’s helpful to move down the scale to special privileges or contingent activities in order to establish the right behaviour, which we can then praise and encourage.


The good news is – it is possible to be systematic and methodical about motivating students. It doesn’t all come to down to personal charisma or dominance – with patient, reflective planning, all teachers can succeed in creating self-motivated learners.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it’s easy!

You may also be interested in:

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One – Matthew Effects

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part Two – No Escape

Success, failure and self-concept

Pulling the Strands Together


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