Motivate Students to Learn Without Rewards

Basic behavior management tells us that you need to give something back when you take something away. It’s not good enough to say, “Don’t do this” without saying “Do this instead.” Mediocre teachers master the art of saying “don’t” very quickly, with mixed results. The well-mannered, bright, motivated students from positive home environments want to please, and they will many times “don’t” do something “just because I said so.” That’s what they were trained to do. And they will work for an intrinsic reward such as grades because of the motivation from home.

But how many of those students do you have in your class? Most of us work and teach in a school setting filled with students who come from less than ideal home situations and have less than maximum motivation to learn. How do we motivate them? Grades aren’t enough. And I strongly reject the notion of using physical rewards, incentives, and bribes. Those types of incentives are gimmicks that won’t result in long-term changes in behavior. There are a variety of alternatives. Here are three that are easy to implement.

  • Show Genuine Care for your Students. Think of the best teachers you ever had. What do they all have in common? They got to know you as a person and genuinely cared about you. They recognized you when you came into their classrooms. You felt welcome, safe, and validated as a person. They recognized your feelings and your needs. They laughed with you, encouraged you, and celebrated your successes.

We have limits on the time and manner in which we can develop relationships with our students, but research is clear that one of the single most important factors impacting student motivation is a relationship with a caring adult at school. You can be that adult. I’ve posted two personal stories of my own in Loving the Unloveable Student and You are a Teacher.

  • Demonstrate a Constant Excitement about Personal Learning. Remember the excitement of learning something you didn’t know previously? All of us have an innate desire to learn. As teachers, we must kindle that fire inside students. Practically every student entering kindergarten wants to learn to read. They love new experiences, the wonder of new worlds opened to them. What happens? How do schools suppress that love for learning?

I don’t have the answers to all those questions, but I do know that we must find ways to bring enthusiasm back into learning. And the best way is by exhibiting enthusiasm ourselves. Show your excitement about new concepts, new ideas, and make that learning relevant to students.

  • Introduce Appropriate Challenge. I remember playing ping-pong with my father. I hardly ever beat him, but I improved with each game. And once in a while I reached that magical 21-point plateau before he did. I begged him to play me every night, even though I knew I would most likely go down in defeat. I never thought about playing my six-year old cousin. That wouldn’t be any fun, even though I could beat him easily every time.

We rarely choose to play a game when we absolutely know we will win. We want the challenge. So do students. Providing appropriate challenge to students is one of the best rewards in motivating students. The trick is to find the right level of challenge. If the task is too easy students have little motivation and too hard leads to frustration. Let students choose. Provide various levels of challenge, with no reward or punishment attached.

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About mprater

I'm a recently retired school teacher/administrator continuing to help people grow through personal learning. When not blogging, I do consulting work for schools and organizations, make presentations at conferences, and research for publication. At the same time, I have to set aside enough time to enjoy the "good life" of retirement!
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20 Responses to Motivate Students to Learn Without Rewards

  1. Constance Dixon says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I felt as if it was directly aimed towards me. Working in a daycare where most 2 year olds will only work for a reward can sometimes be draining, In the younger classes they are taught they get skittles if they go to the potty. In my class we have to break them of the skittle reward. If they do a task I ask the comment soon after is, “can I have a skittle”. I truly want to motivate them with out the rewards in a physical aspect and it truly makes my done when a student performs a task with out wanting anything but praise in return.

    • mprater says:

      It’s a fine line we walk, isn’t it? We all need some rewards for our hard work. Kids do too, even if it’s some Skittles. But how do we balance that with helping them to want to learn just because learning is fun? Thanks for your comments, Constance. It sounds like you are doing some nice reflecting on the topic of rewarding students.

  2. Haleigh Respess says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. While reading the section titled “Show Genuine Care for Your Students,” I instantly had a teacher on my mind that showed all of the characteristics you listed. I hope to someday be as great of a teacher as she was and still is today, because she was my inspiration for becoming an elementary education major. I also found the section titled “Introduce Appropriate Challenge,” to be interesting, because last year my little brother became extremely bored with school because he was not being challenged enough. Soon after, he was tested for pace, and got into the program, and instantly began loving school again. I feel that for many children that are bored with school, it is either because they are not being challenged or because they are not understanding the curriculum and have reached a certain frustration level.

  3. mprater says:

    Thanks for your comments, Haleigh. I think you have wonderful insight into the heart of good teaching. I’m happy you found my blog post helpful, and I wish you all the best as you continue toward your goal of becoming a master teacher.

  4. Jordan Patterson says:

    I am student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama and I really enjoyed reading your post. I found it very helpful and interesting. Some people these days don’t realize that your classroom is not going to be a bunch of angels. Not every kid is going to say yes sir or no sir and I agreed completely with the ways you had for solving problems in the classroom. I personally like how you said to show genuine car towards the students. Realistically all students want is some attention and if you get to know them and show interest in them, then I think they will respond better. My favorite point was the one about motivating students. I grew up with two older brothers so I was never given anything and it made me a better person. I like how you say the right level of competition could bring out the best in that particular student.
    Thanks Jordan

  5. mprater says:

    Thanks for your comments, Jordan. You are well on your way to becoming a master teacher because I can sense your heart for kids…. all kids, not just the “angels” as you put it. My best wishes to you as you continue your education.

  6. Kayla Parazine says:

    Hi, I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. Your post was so inspirational and helpful for me as a prospective elementary teacher! I agree that genuine care has to be shown towards our students. I have heard that teachers are not only teachers, they are counselors, friends, brothers, sisters, etc. to those that do not have a person of that role in that child’s life. All students want to know that they are cared about and the outcomes in the classroom I would think would be more positive! In our EDM 310 class we are learning lots about technology in the classroom and how it engages and motivates students more. Like you said above, grades are not enough motivation anymore so therefore, we have to come up with other ways to motivate our students intrinsically.

    • mprater says:

      The old mantra, “They don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care,” is still very true, isn’t it? I’m so glad my post inspired you, Kayla. And yes, you are correct, technology is a great tool to engage and motivate students. Research indicates that students we define as at-risk are especially motivated with technology.

  7. randyh says:

    I teach Special Education at a high school and with my students comes great responsibility in getting them to learn and to complete assignments on time. I had a rewards system where they could earn points for good grades, good behavior, and attendance. Their behavior was compensated each week through a ticket economy and then every three weeks to two students who had the most points on the rewards chart. At the suggestion of my Induction Teacher coordinator, this is the plan that I still have in place after nearly one semester. I haven’t seen much change in student behavior nor their grades. I also showed the students motivational youtube clips to inspire them to want to be better. Still, each of these ideas haven’t worked. I am struggling to find that motivating factor to keep them in school and to make sure they are doing well in all classes. If you could provide me with more suggestions, I would be ever grateful!

    • mprater says:

      I feel your pain, Randy. You have an extremely difficult job of trying to motivate the unmotivated student, and it would be easy to give up or at the very least become cynical about the process. I really don’t think offering extrinsic rewards like you have been doing will work with the young people you have in class. I think you’re recognizing that.

      The first suggestion that comes to mind is to establish a relationship with the kids. Get to know them, know their home environments, what they like and don’t like, etc. Respect them and treat them like you genuinely care, which you do. I think you can spend more time just letting them know you can be trusted, that you care about their lives, and that you will be there for them. Many of them have no adult advocate. You may be the first person they see who smiles at them and encourages them. At least the first male adult who does so.

      Next, find some way to make their learning relevant to them. Find what connects with them, whether it’s video games, skateboarding, sci-fi, or whatever. Creatively develop learning activities around those interests. I remember one student who loved art and was very good at it. At Christmas time, my class drew the New York City skyline to scale on a wall to decorate with lights. He came alive! He came in after school and took great pride in the results. And in the process, he learned some Math.

      I hope these ideas help. My best wishes are with you.

  8. Haley Thompson says:

    I could not agree more with everything you just said. I also believe it is very necessary to bring the excitement back into learning. I still remember as a child learning my times tables because if we knew them each week we would get some candy. It was exciting to me because I am competitive and I wanted to beat my classmates. So not only was this exciting because I would get candy, but it was also a challenge.

  9. I could not agree more with everything you just said. I also believe it is very necessary to bring the excitement back into learning. I still remember as a child learning my times tables because if we knew them each week we would get some candy. It was exciting to me because I am competitive and I wanted to beat my classmates. So not only was this exciting because I would get candy, but it was also a challenge. I am so glad there are teachers out there willing to go over and beyond like you.

  10. I am a student at the University of South Alabama and I enjoyed reading your post. I agreed with somethings, where as other points I did not. One of my favorite memories in elementary school was competing against my classmates and winning a prize. There is nothing wrong with a little reward as a motivation from time to time. There is an appropriate time for everything depending on the challenge.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks so much for your three comments, Haley. You are well on your way to becoming a great teacher with your insights into what motivates students. My best wishes are with you.

  11. Samantha Spence says:

    You have a few awesome pointers, Mike. I will no doubt keep all these in mind in my future when I become a teacher. Students need verbal rewards instead of candy. I know when I was a kid if I thought by teacher hated being there with us and hated learning then I hated that teacher. I hope to take these wise points into the classroom and never forget the excitement of learning.

    • mprater says:

      That is so true, Samantha. Kids are more intuitive than we many times give them credit for, aren’t they? They will immediately pick up on our excitement (or lack of) for learning. Everyday is game day for the teacher! You have to be “on” all the time. It’s quite a challenge, but it sounds like you are up for it and I know you will be one outstanding teacher.

  12. Enjoyed reading your blog. My name is Kim and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned to read your blog, leave a comment, and later post the results on my blog. I agree with what you are saying. These all sound like great ways to motivate students. These are simple ideas that anyone can incorporate into the classroom. Sometimes, we look for some “new” profound way to motivate others. I drive a school bus and I have found some of these ideas to work. If you show them you care they will go the extra mile. Although sometimes, they drive me crazy…I still love them all. Thanks for reminding me to be kind and uplifting, even when it’s difficult.

    • mprater says:

      Hi Kim. Sorry about the delay in replying to your post. I’ve been out of the office for some time and am just now catching up. As a bus driver you play one of the most important roles in education. You are the first school person to see the child in the morning and the last in the evening. Your attitude can set the tone for their entire day. You will become an outstanding teacher! Thanks for your kind comments.

  13. alex says:

    Hey Mr. Prater. My name is Alexandria Thompson and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed reading this post. I feel that as a future teacher I am reminded on how to keep education and learning fun and exciting. The school systems are more focused now on just teaching the students to memorize and not really take in and apply what they are learning. I really do not want my students to learn in that fashion so I will do my best to make learning fun.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your comments, Alexandria. Sorry about the delay in replying to you. I’ve been out of the office quite a bit and am just now catching up. Good luck to you in your future aspirations to become a wonderful teacher.

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