10 Techniques to Motivate Student Progress

The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have a secret that more teachers need to steal. (Stay with me on this one...)

If you want to be an Eagle Scout, then you need to earn certain merit badges. If you want to earn a merit badge, then you have to view the list of requirements for that merit badge (a checklist of action steps). If you've completed a requirement, then the Scoutmaster initials and dates each checklist item in your personal book to confirm that you did finish it.

In my personal experiences with Scouting, I've seen how motivating those lists of requirements can be. Yes, there are external motivators (with the reward being the merit badge and the respective ranks it can help you acquire), but there's also something very compelling about a to-do list with that blank spot next to it, waiting to be checked off.

I've been thinking a lot about this setup in the last five years, especially as a teacher, watching the students in my classrooms change. In a world filled with instant gratification and frequent feedback (i.e. social media comments/likes), many of my students are responding well to short-term goals, faster teacher affirmation, and small rewards on a longer trail of learning.

I've been gradually experimenting with ways I can do the following:

  • Give students feedback faster (instead of waiting on me to return a grade)
  • Motivate all students to take more action steps (even those who hate "work")
  • Praise students for doing the right thing
  • Promote positive, proactive behaviors

While I realize that most teachers are wary of overdoing rewards, stickers, prizes, or the "everyone gets a trophy" philosophy, that's not what I'm going for, either. Many older students just want recognition or feedback, and most of the ideas shown below don't have a carrot at the end. 

Below is a list of some of the tools and techniques I've been using in my middle school ELA classroom. These ideas are easily adaptable so that you can make them work best for you!

1. Stamp Sheets and Checklists
Stamps are my NEW BEST FRIEND. My favorite tool is a simple Bingo dauber to stamp students' reading passports (see below). The stamp sheet you see here is a non-graded tool that I use alongside the Accelerated Reader program that my district requires; in other words, it's a motivational tool for independent reading so that I can reward students for positive reading behaviors, like meeting a goal or pacing their reading wisely.

My second favorite tool is Crayola's emoji stamp markers, especially if the circles being stamped are smaller (see photo). What you see here is this year's (new) way that I'm tracking student points that are earned in our Grammar House Cup game. (See this blog post to learn more about that game.) Stamping these sheets has been the most effective way I've found to track student action steps. 

Get BOTH stamp sheets you see above FOR FREE at this link! (The templates also come with descriptors for what the grammar circles mean.)

2. Smaller reading deadlines
Some students aren't ready to just "read to page 100 by Monday" and need to learn how to read a little every night. These pacing bookmarks have been epic for teaching students better reading habits! 

3. Certificates and Superlatives
In addition to whatever comments you may write on a rubric or assignment, you might want students to feel more pride in their work. One option is to use these certificates for public speaking, essays, or creative writing, which could be quietly stapled to student work or even celebrated more publicly in class. 

4. Units in a Game Board format
This is a super-customizable route that isn't as hard as it may seem. If your unit has a linear list of action steps, you might like framing it more visually in a game board! (Learn more in this blog post, OR download my game board templates here.)

5. Setting a Timer
This could just be me and my students, but lately I've found that setting an actual timer works better than just telling students to get started, or even telling them that they only have a certain number of minutes. If you want increased focus, use a timer that they can see or hear. 

6. Short Term Challenges
If you want to try a 24-hour challenge, 1-week challenge, or even a 30-Day challenge, the pressure of a deadline can motivate some students to not procrastinate and to get started sooner. One example is this editable 30-Day Challenge for ELA.

7. Authentic Audiences for Writing
Bringing in external "judges" from the community was one of the best things I did during my student teaching in high school. Get more ideas in this blog post, co-written with Nouvelle ELA, 6 Guest Speakers to Invite to Your English Class

8. Positive Peer Pressure
There's a specific literature unit I do each year in which we complete Chapter Study Guides and let students verbally quiz each other. It's a great way to find out who did (or didn't) read while still controlling the situation to prevent shaming. If students know this is coming, needing to be "on the ball" in front of their peers is a huge motivator!

9. Being in the Here and Now
I suspect that most English teachers are already making strong real-world connections in their classrooms, but some students may still be too deep in the "here and now" to be motivated by grades, a future grade level, or college. Little ways to connect the topic to their present selves can sometimes help. One example is this FREE "Which Punctuation Mark Are You?" quiz

10. Using Videos
Whether you use a quick video to hook students into a lesson, employ the Flipped Classroom model, or let students make videos themselves, I've found that anything involving a video is more likely to get completed than other tasks or forms of homework. 

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Do you have ideas or questions? 
Tell me in the comments!
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