Lacking in Motivation


One of the largest obstacles teachers face in their classrooms is the lack of motivation on the students’ part.  This motivation is lacking in all areas of learning and academia, but writing in particular has been a problem.  As a current student teacher, I’ve yet to have my own classroom, but I do spend three days a week all day in a high school language arts class.  From my own observations and involvement, getting students to do just about anything like read or write, especially write, is like pulling teeth.  Some of these students seem to have been infected with a kind of laziness that I never imagined could have existed; however, after further observation, I realize that even this pseudo-laziness goes deeper than that.  The lack of student motivation in schools today depends on the lack of confidence and concept of self-worth in the student.

Defined by a dictionary, motivation may refer to the initiation, direction, intensity and persistence of behavior, or what ‘drives’ a person to do what they do.  In reference to student motivation, it would mean what makes the students do their work, perform in tasks, and in our specific case in writing, actually write.  However, it goes deeper than that.

Linda Lumsden, author of Student Motivation to Learn, briefly discusses two different types of motivation.  There’s intrinsic motivation in which a student may undertake an activity “for its own sake, for the enjoyment it provides, the learning it permits, or the feelings of accomplishment it evokes”.  Then there’s extrinsic motivation in which a student performs “in order to obtain some reward or avoid some punishment external to the activity itself,” which may include stickers, grades or even teacher approval.


            Timothy L. Seifert, author of Understanding Student Motivation, defines self-worth and relates it to our culture.  He states, “The theory begins by postulating that people possess a sense of self-worth, and that self-worth is a critical dimension of human functioning.  Self-worth refers to the judgment one makes about one’s sense of worth and dignity as a person…There is a belief in Western culture that self-worth is inherently connected to performance.  People who are good at something are people who are worthy; people who are valued by others are good at tasks that are important.  In the context of school, students who can get top grades (are smart) are deemed more worthy than those who do not do well.”

            In my own experiences as a student and also as a student teacher, I would agree.  Self-worth is a very important and intricate piece of our development as an individual  and when it comes to the sections of our life where we feel that performance is necessary, self-worth will come into question.

Barbara Mushins Fulk and Donna J. Montgomery Grymes, authors of Strategies to Improve Student Motivation, state that research shows that motivation is actually affected more by self-efficacy (students’beliefs regarding their ability to meet task demands) more than other factors.  They say, “It is generally accepted that strong academic self-efficacy results in increased effort and persistence, whereas poor self-efficacy results in negative emotional reactions (e.g., worry, defensiveness, avoidance) rather than appropriate study behaviors. Students’perceptions regarding their competence predict achievement more accurately than actual ability levels.”

It seems that people tend to assume that student achievement is directly related to ability levels, and I’m sure there is some truth to that, but even if the student’s ability level is high while they simply don’t believe they’re able to complete a task, their achievement level will inevitably be low.

            Motivation is not the only problem.  Related to that is engagement.  Engagement involves the students’ active interaction with the learning process, and in this case, writing specifically.  Having said that, motivation is the goal in order to have engaged students

In the book, Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn, student engagement is discussed, and it is says that motivation is seen as a precursor to engagement.  There is a diagram of an educational theory in Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn that says that educational context (school climate, organization, composition size) and instruction matter.  This in turn affects three psychological variables of students: beliefs about competence and control, values and goals, social connectedness. As a result, engagement (resulting from proper motivation) either flourishes or fails.

“Student will not exert effort in academic work if they are convinced they lack the capacity to succeed or have no control over outcomes.  They need to know what it takes to succeed and to believe they can succeed.  Thus, the student who doesn’t believe she can do the homework assigned will not attempt it; the student who believes he is incapable of passing the courses he needs to graduate will not exert much effort in class and may stop coming to school altogether.  Students’ beliefs about their academic competence may affect behavior in the United States more than in some other countries because Americans tend to have a concept of intelligence that is inherited rather than developed through effort…A student who believes that academic ability is fixed and that she is low in ability has little hope for success and therefore little reason to try.”

In Let Sleeping Students Lie? Using Interpersonal Activities to Engage Disengaged Students, author Michelle M. Merwin, who had a problem with her own students not being motivated or engaged, went right to the source (students) and asked them what they wanted or needed from their teachers.  Some of the responses were:

“Don’t blow off complaints and suggestions.

Learn our names.

Encourage instead of discourage.

Develop some type of personal relationship with us.

Avoid composing tests that look like they want us to fail.

Treat us as individuals.

Send us letters of encouragement for hard work.

Take a personal interest in me when I don’t do well on an exam and try to help me do better.

Just show an interest in students and be aware of their feelings.

Care whether we pass or fail.

Acknowledge me when you see me outside of class.

Know little things about me — like my major, my hometown or whether I’m an athlete.”

Merwin said that after hearing those comments from her students, she started to remember what it was like to feel invisible as a student and not being able to have her say in matters in the classroom.  Because of this, she says that she thinks that one explanation of the lack of motivation and disengagement of students is that they are sometimes experienced as part-objects, which are what psychoanalysts refer to a preoccupation with a certain aspect of a person, rather than the entire person.  She says that she likes to get to   know them better through informal writing and personal contact, by using, “interpersonal demonstrations, empathy and humor to heighten participation and alleviate anonymity.” 


            The interests and passion of the students are equally crucial and related to their concept of self-worth.  If a student has a negative concept of their own self-worth, they may not express interest, or they may somehow feel that they own interests are less important than others.  For a teacher to get them reacquainted with their own interest and passions could be a start in rejuvenating their confidence, which is a great start to motivate them. 

            In Creating Lesson Plans Designed to Motivate Students, author Cynthia Desrochers, says that, as I suggested, student interest is a large factor in student motivation..  She starts off by saying that students are motivated by their interests, and so motivation is heightened when they’re getting to work on something that’s relevant to them or involves their choice or control over what they consider to be important elements. 

At this point in a student’s life, the ability to safely exert their own control is a way of letting them be expressive and learn freely.

Edward Hootstein from Motivating the Unmotivated Child introduces an idea called the RISE model that gets its name from four vital conditions that one must address in order to motivate students. RISE stands for Relevant subject matter, Interesting instruction, Satisfied learner, Expectations of success. 

Even though I’m breaking up the order of the RISE model, we’ll begin with his take on interest.  For interesting instruction, he advises to “pique students’ curiosity by providing incongruous, contradictory and paradoxical information.”  He also says to promote a sense of control for the students in the learning process by offering them a variety of choices about when, how and what to learn (if possible).  Another way to make unmotivated students believe they’re in control is to set person goals because it helps them define what is important to them while they learn some self-management skills.  In writing, this is important.

In reference to relevant subject matter, Hootstein advises to try to relate the content to the students’ needs and interests and experiences as much as possible and then communicate the intended value of the activity/assignment. He says that students want to know what they’ll gain or how they’ll benefit from the activity/assignment.

Piquing their interest in this way is not only fun for them because they really do want to do it, but it helps them to prepare for their lives later on in terms of learning the application of their skills.

Ann T. White of Keys to the Might of Motivation says that the principles of human motivation apply to all of us, regardless of our age, and that it’s that we learn when we have a reason. It’s vital that students must see the information covered in the classroom as relevant to their own lives and just the same, it must be something of interest to them. She says, “They must see a connection between what they are learning in the classroom and their own goals. Teachers need to identify students’ interests and assist them in developing creative projects, that, once completed, will increase their self-esteem and motivationto learn more.”

As a suggestion for a quick remedy that help the root of this problem, Karen Bromley and Penny Powell, authors of Interest Journals Motivate Student Writers, say that interest journals are simply a kind that students can write entries about whatever they want and not only do they write them, but later they read entries written by others students.  They can be of any topic or interest.  It’s the student’s choice.  Bromley and Powell say, “Students can voice opinions, clarify their thinking, ask questions, build on one another’s ideas, and debate issues. Interest journals offer students opportunities to write persuasively as they try to change one another’s minds and influence one another’s actions. Elementary and middle school students learn that to convince someone, an opinion needs to be supported by evidence and that to persuade, you need to be logical and to use vivid and specific vocabulary.”

This type of writing teaches them how to use evidence to support their arguments, which is a skill used later in life, but because they can make choices about what their entries are about, it makes them want to write about it.  Students, no matter how young or old, like to be able to voice their opinions in a world where they may feel no one else is listening. 

Rewards and Feedback

            Hootstein, from Motivating the Unmotivated Child, talks about making the students satisfied learners by providing rewards that have informational value to them.  He says you can use these rewards to control their behavior or inform them about their competence.  For example, feedback is good.  If you give them feedback about improvement or their performance, they may become more interested in that assignment, especially in writing.  He said, “Statements such as, “You explained it clearly” and “This story is very imaginative” provide students with specific information about their work. But controlling statements such as “I like your paper” and “You did well enough to earn free time” convey the message that students perform to please the teacher and may cause them to lose interest in learning.” 

Last, he talks about expectations for success.  To do this, he says to start off by emphasizing that increased effort will likely lead to success (which is a type of reward for them, although not as obvious) because when students know that effort makes a difference, they will most likely increase their tendencies to persist.

In Creating Lesson Plans Designed to Motivate Students, author Cynthia Desrochers, also talks about how important student feedback is.  She says that feedback is crucial because everyone, including students, like to hear about how they’re doing.  She states that feedback should be frequent and come in a variety of forms.   She also mentions that feedback may often be self-generated if the student is able to use a check sheet or rubric.

Many seem to think that feedback automatically has to be something negative that only tells a student what they did wrong or what they should change, but that isn’t true.  Feedback that’s positive or at least constructive (even if it is criticism) is one of the best resources we have to reinforce wanted behaviors.

White of Keys to the Might of Motivation, states that “specific knowledge of results is an important factor for motivation.”  She says that when such feedback is not provided, the students may lose interest, which is a problem.  The feedback should be regarding progress and mastery and it needs to be as immediate as possible.  Furthermore, she instructs that the “information should be detailed, giving strengths and suggestions of how to improve.”  Even more importantly, it’s best to write out comments instead of just assigning a grade. 

She states that student will respond better and I have to agree.  A grade within itself is simply a mark of where you stand.  Comments are more powerful because they state more directly what’s good or needs to be improved upon.  They’re a guide for the students to go by.

Encouragement and Enthusiasm by the Teacher/Instructor

            Even though learning is at least partially in the students’ hands and is their own responsibility, as a future educator I know that a lot of things that teachers do can directly affect how their students view writing and other tasks that need motivation.  If a teacher is not modeling his/her enthusiasm for learning and/or writing or encouraging those that look up to her, the students may, and probably will, view it as something negative.

Rose Marie Codler, Linda B. Gambrell, Aileen Kennedy, Barbara Martin Palmer and Mary Graham, authors of The Teacher, the Text, and the Context: Factors that Influence Elementary Students’ Motivation to Write, say that one of the most important factors in motivating students is the teacher’s attitude toward writing. 

Teachers who genuinely believe writing to be interesting and important, and also convey that attitude, encourage their students to value writing.

Anna Leahy, author of Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project, said, “The big deal is that people are beginning to understand the devastating effects of shame and blame and to realize that we don’t have to endure it or cultivate it.  Encouragement in a step-by step process enhances motivation.  Mutual respect and cooperation ultimate create more authority in the classroom than the authoritarian and condescending attitudes that have been modeled in the past.”

In Keys to the Might of Motivation, author White gives a checklist of things that teachers should do to encourage students to get involved.  First of all, she says that teachers who can ignite children’s natural curiosity and passion must be present in every classroom. She says, “Teachers must be enthusiastic and excited about learning themselves. Share your own interests and hobbies. Exhibit a sense of purpose and pride in your own work and profession.”

Also, developing a positive and strong relationship with the parents of your students is helpful.  Being teachers, we become one of the new role models in the students’ lives.  To create a bond with the parents and solicit help from them will help the students see that both the teacher and their parents place high value on education.  White says, “Parents are children’s first teachers.  Children arrive in this world with a keen desire to learn more about themselves and their surroundings. Most parents cherish…holding their hands, encouraging their efforts, and applauding their successes. When these children grow older and enter school, they will have a strong desire to learn if their parents continue to offer assistance and support.”

Going along with this, showing concern to the students that you, as their teacher, care about them, their lives and how they do in school is important to showing them that what work they do isn’t in vain.  White mentions that it may be hard for the students who have developed a hard “I-don’t-care” shell because of their past disappointments to become used to you showing concern.  However, she says, it does eventually happen.

            Teachers should also make sure that the goals they provide for the student are clearly defined and attainable. 

In Creating Lesson Plans Designed to Motivate Students, author Cynthia Desrochers, says that student success is a factor because students are motivated by clearly defined goals, a variety of learning options, group-work and an emotional climate of success.  She says that a lack of clearly defined goals can force students to try to “hit a moving (or missing) target”, and that in effect reduces the chance of student success. 

Sara E. Quay and Russell J. Quaglia, authors of Creating a Classroom Culture that Inspires Student Learning, suggest that one major way to help promote student motivation is to encourage healthy risk-taking by making it safe for them to both succeed and fail.  They say, “Students’ innate spirit of adventure so often gets checked by the classroom door. Yet that spirit is what helps students take academic risks, whether speaking up in front of class, debating an idea, or writing a difficult paper.”

I definitely think that this is key.  Because of things such as grades, becoming embarrassed in front of their peers or even teacher approval, students are ‘playing it cool’ by not investing themselves in their writing, work and general participation.  There are no risks being taken, but for real learning to happen and great pieces to be written, they have to learn to put themselves out on a limb. 

Codler, Gambrell, Kennedy, Palmer and Graham fromTeacher, the Text, and the Context: Factors that Influence Elementary Students’ Motivation to Write, also say that what students encounter when they read matters greatly.  The texts that students encounter have a strong influence on their writing.  They say, “When children are exposed to a wide variety of reading materials, they are provided with sources for their own writing.  Experience with high quality, engaging expository text early in the school years may be an important vehicle for improving children’s negative feelings related to writing information text.”

            Obviously, practice is important.  Practicing reading, practicing writing and doing it over and over again so that it’s something that they’re used to doing and something that they know they can succeed at.  As teachers, it’s our responsibility to make sure this happens.


            From my own experiences and judgments, as well as the research above, it does seem that student motivation very heavily depends on the student’s sense of self-worth, even though the self-worth itself may depend upon many different things.  It’s obviously a very complicated concept made up of intricate factors and details that no matter how insignificant they may seem, it’s enough to easily affect a student’s involvement and desire to be engaged in their work and especially writing.  Students need learn to take risks, know that they’re capable and be able to build off of what interests they have in order to be successfully motivated to accomplish things they may not have imagined they could have done before. 

Works Cited

Bromley, Karen, and Penny Powell. “Interest Journals Motivate Student Writers.” Reading Teacher 53(1999)

Codler, Rose Marie, Linda B. Gambrell, Aileen Kennedy, Barbara Martin Palmer, and Mary Graham. “The Teacher, the Text, and the Context: Factors that Influence Elementary Students’ Motivation to Write.” National Reading Research Center. (1997): 1-28.

Desrochers, Cynthia. “Creating Lesson Plans Designed to Motivate Students.” Contemporary Education 71(2000): 51-52.

Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 2004.

Fulk, Barbara Mushins, and Donna J. Montgomery-Grymes. “Strategies to Improve Student Motivation.” Intervention in School & Clinic 30(1994): 28-33.

Hootstein, Edward. “Motivating the Unmotivated Child.” Teaching PreK-8 29(1998): 58-59.

Leahy, Anna. Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project. 1st. Clevedon, U.K.: Buffalo Multilingual Matters, 2005.

Lumsden, Linda. “Student Motivation to Learn.” Emergency Librarian 22(1994): 31-32.

Merwin, Michelle M.. “Let Sleeping Students Lie? Using Interpersonal Activities to Engage Disengaged Students.” College Student Journal 36(2002): 87-88.

Quay, Sara E., and Russel J. Quaglia. “Creating a Classroom Culture that Inspires Student Learning.” Teaching Professor 18(2004): 1.

Seifert, Timothy L.. “Understanding Student Motivation.” Educational Research 46(2004): 137-149.

White, Ann T. “Keys to the Might of Motivation.” Education Digest 62(1997): 62-64

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