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We’ve met them before, students who perform academically at a level below their actual ability or potential. Students who score well on standardized tests or surprise us with knowledge when talking about a certain subject but then fail to complete homework or participate in a class covering the very same content. Students who even when faced with failing grades or repeated confrontations from teachers and parents, just can’t get motivated when it comes to the classroom. These are the underachievers.While they appear disinterested, bored or apathetic, there’s often more going on than what meets the eye, like the need for a challenge, the existence of an undiagnosed learning disability, poor self-esteem or poor organizational skills. One of the most persistent questions facing educators has long been how to overcome these factors in order to engage students and motivate them to become successful learners.

Part of the answer to this question is perhaps best found in working individually with students, counselors and parents. But another aspect can be broached by incorporating creative tactics into a positive learning environment, like these:

  1. Think S-C-O-R-E
    Researchers have found that engaged and motivated students are driven by four essential goals: Success, Curiosity, Originality or Relationships. With this in mind, develop lesson plans that appeal to or meet each one of these goals, empowering students to work toward their full potential.
  2. Get excited
    Excitement is contagious. Educators who clearly express excitement over a subject can often inspire students to get excited, too. For example, when reviewing material for a test or a quiz, turn it into a game that models a television game and offer prizes, like fun Bentcils or a Tangle Puzzle, not only to those with the correct answer, but those who are the most participatory.
  3. Provide opportunities for success
    Disinterested or unmotivated students often need to succeed in small ways in order to be motivated to achieve in greater ways. Without lowering expectations, find ways to allow this to happen: Ask a few basic questions when introducing a new topic, call on students at random by drawing their name from a hat to ensure that all students have equal opportunity to respond, or present homework questions in an increasing degree of difficulty.
  4. Show honest appreciation
    Not only do students lacking motivation respond best to specific instructions, they also respond best to specific indications of appreciation. For example, when using “I statements,” such as “I think you are doing a great job” or “I appreciate your willingness to participate,” to convey genuine appreciation about a student or his or her work, you are communicating personal appreciation, rather than using a general or exaggerated response.
  5. Offer equal praise for all students
    Fairness in the classroom can play a role in student motivation in that all students should receive praise. Look for positive things to say about a student’s work, even when pointing out problems or mistakes. Some might receive praise for bigger accomplishments than others but even the under achievers need a regular pat on the back. Be sure to also give praise to your class as a whole to encourage students and build team unity. The occasional incentive doesn’t hurt, like an All-Pro Yo-Yo or a Rubik’s Cube, to reward the class for a particularly great week of participation and effort during a specific unit or lesson.
  6. Survey students and parents
    If you’re still struggling to help motivate students to give their full potential after getting creative with your teaching approaches, consider surveying the students who struggle and their parents. Create a short questionnaire to complete online or at home that addresses learning styles, obstacles, opportunities for improvement and more from their perspective. Then, work with them outside of class to create an action plan and set goals. Give students vinyl folders to easily transport updates to and from home to keep everyone on track.

Sometimes, a little extra effort and excitement in the classroom is all it takes to get students motivated to give their all. Incorporate new tactics and fun incentives today to see what differences you can make to turn your underachievers into overachievers in no time!


“What Really Motivates Middle School Students?” Welcome to MiddleWeb’s Middle School Resources! Web. 29 Sept. 2010.

Motivation.” Web. 29 Sept. 2010.

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