How To Motivate Unmotivated Students

How To Motivate Unmotivated StudentsYou praise. You encourage. You pep-talk, demand, and implore.

But nothing seems to change.

Trying and failing to motivate unmotivated students is a common frustration among teachers.

It’s a frustration with seemingly no real answers beyond the same old, same old.

Until today.

Because I’m going to share with you a reliable way to begin improving the work habits of your most reluctant students, those with next to zero interest in their schoolwork.

It consists of a single, honest strategy you can feel good about using.

But first it’s important to note that when we talk about motivation, it’s common to think in terms of something we do to try and convince them to work harder.

In other words, it’s our external doing—our cheering, persuading, rebuking, exhorting, or coaxing—that kicks them into gear. It’s our direct action upon them that makes the difference.

But this approach rarely works with hard-to-reach students, which makes it all the more remarkable that this is exactly what you’ve been told to do.

It’s the stock recommendation from every counselor, administrator, or specialist you confer with. You’re told to praise, encourage, reward, and repeat, all day every day.

True motivation, however—that which is internal and sustaining—doesn’t develop through convincing. It isn’t about ramped-up enthusiasm or flattery. It isn’t about stiffer consequences. It isn’t even about motivation, per se.

It’s about inspiration.

It’s about a form of inspiration that comes from within the student—intrinsically rather than extrinsically. It’s about tapping into that bubbling, churning life-brew buried deep down inside.

The strategy I’d like to share with you has a way of slipping by well-fortified, heard-it-all defenses. It has a way of sneaking by the palace guards and climbing in through a window.

It has a way of activating the desire to succeed without trying to convince your students of anything. It’s remarkably and predictably effective, and yet all that is required of you is your honesty.

The first step is to stop the flow of excessive and over-the-top praise.

Stop pulling inert students aside for pep-talks and lectures. Stop talking them through what they’re capable of doing for themselves. Stop trying to use your creative use of words to get them going.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, this alone will get a great many unmotivated students moving. The idea of relying on themselves feels good, and they’ll give more, sometimes much more, than when you were pushing and prodding them along.

Keep notice of this, but say nothing for now.

In the meantime, you’re going to keep a lookout for evidence of quality work, no matter how small. You’re going to keep a lookout for that which impresses you based on their ability.

But instead of praising them for it, instead of saying how proud you are of them or how impressed you are with their effort, you’re going to make an observation about their work.

You’re going to give plain and honest feedback about the evidence you see on the page or screen.

That’s good work.”

That’s a well-written sentence.”

That’s a clever idea.”

That’s exactly right.”

Your conclusion is spot on.”

Now, it’s important to note that it must be true. The least motivated in particular can recognize phoniness from a mile a way. Having been on the receiving end of so much it, they’ve become experts.

It’s equally important that you don’t use the same over-the-top voice and manner you may have used when praising them in the past. Just look down at their work, say your piece, and move on.

And when you do . . . when you turn and head down the aisle without looking back, their insides will begin to stir.

Beneath bowed head and downcast eyes, the faintest whisper of a smile will cross their lips. They may even suppress a giggle. Joyous and inexplicable.

They’ll have experienced the first rumblings of pride—not in themselves, mind you, not the selfish variety one feels in comparison to others, but pride in the work itself. Pride in excellence for excellence sake.

Pride in something bigger and more important than themselves.

Good work habits, attentiveness, production, etc. aren’t so much a matter of discipline that must be hammered into disinterested students. Nor are they the manufactured ballooning of the self through false praise.

Rather, they are the awakening and nurturing of delight in the work itself.

By truthfully pointing out quality when you see it, you spark their once dormant intrinsic motivational engine to life. You wake up the sleeping giant. You set down a single block from which you can build the pyramids at Giza.

When struggling to motivate students who have practically no interest in anything you place before them, instead of focusing on the person, focus on their work.

And the person will blossom.

Note: This isn’t a one-time strategy to get a particular student to finish a particular assignment. It’s a long-term approach that gradually draws reluctant students into the joy of creativity, the flow of concentrated effort, and the deep, soul-calming satisfaction that follows every job well done.

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22 Responses to How To Motivate Unmotivated Students

  1. surendran March 22, 2015 at 3:16 am #

    nice article, good suggestions

  2. Ethan March 22, 2015 at 6:32 am #

    Would you suggest still doing external motivational techniques while waiting for the internal motivation to grow?

    • Michael Linsin March 22, 2015 at 6:47 am #

      Hi Ethan,

      Yes, but it’s important that it is done in a way that supports the strategy above. Please read the article linked on the word “praise.” There is more to this topic we hope to cover in the future.


  3. Sheri March 22, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    Does this work even on young students? I teach third grade. The speech therapist and psychologist want me to use a reward board for a student claiming he is not developmentally ready for intrinsic motivation.

    • Michael Linsin March 22, 2015 at 9:44 am #

      Hi Sheri,

      Yes, the strategy is meant for all unmotivated students.


  4. Abbie March 22, 2015 at 12:21 pm #

    Love this advice! Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing.’

  5. Karin April 4, 2015 at 6:26 pm #

    Hi Michael!
    I really enjoyed this article and agree with your suggestions. I do have one student that is unmotivated, defiant, disruptive, aggressive and disrespectful. He refutes any praise that I offer him, saying I am a liar. I have done all things with him that you stated in your article are not productive, one to one chats, defining his misbehavior out of the class and working with him to make correct choices. Our school psychologist has drawn up a contract that he hates and tore up at times. I have been in constant communication with mom with both positive and negative feedback. I am at wit’s end. He tells me how much he hates me during class instruction and incites many other students to misbehave. He has used inappropriate language about me aloud in class. The principal said he is to remain in my room no matter what.

    • Michael Linsin April 5, 2015 at 7:39 am #

      Hi Karin,

      When you get a chance, please read through the Difficult Student category of the archive. I can tell from your email that there is a lot you can do to improve your situation, as well as his. If you then have questions, email me. I’m happy to help!


  6. Chris April 16, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

    Hi Michael!

    Nice article!

    Thank you for your valuable suggestions!


    • Michael Linsin April 17, 2015 at 6:39 am #

      You’re welcome, Chris!


  7. Laurie August 22, 2015 at 6:01 am #

    I was wondering if you have any suggestions for the unmedicated ADD kids that move at a snail’s pace, are distracted by a speck of dust floating by and never have their homework done. I write their missing assignments in their planner and require it to be signed by the parent each evening. These kids, more often than not, leave it at home. I’m guessing you will say…give them a warning in the morning, spice up the lessons with stories and nuggets of intrigue, (which is fabulous) but once they are left to work independently on an assignment, they don’t concentrate well and never finish anything.

    • Michael Linsin August 22, 2015 at 7:21 am #

      Hi Laurie,

      This is a topic we hope to cover in a future article.


  8. Preeti S December 12, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

    Hi Mchael
    I go through all the articles n also find them very useful in class. Thanks a lot for ur valuable suggestions. Will u please explain the term counterintuitive more broadly.

    • Michael Linsin December 13, 2015 at 9:13 am #

      Hi Preeti,

      Counterintuitive means that it runs counter to what we would expect.


  9. Paddy February 22, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    I found this article at precisely the right time. Thank you for writing this. I was beating myself up a bit too much today and this helped me to refocus my attention properly.

    • Michael Linsin February 22, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

      Glad to hear it, Paddy. It’s my pleasure.


  10. virlene March 14, 2016 at 1:39 am #

    Really inspiring to do this with my future students.i love this article.

    • Michael Linsin March 14, 2016 at 6:51 am #

      Thank you, Virlene. I’m glad you like the article.


  11. Jeff Steiner July 3, 2016 at 9:48 am #

    Nice work, Michael. I linked it on our facebook and twitter, regards, Jeff.

    • Michael Linsin July 3, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

      Thanks Jeff!


  12. Karen October 30, 2016 at 4:36 pm #

    How does this work for students in Art who don’t want to be there? I subscribe to your site and have gotten some great ideas but most don’t apply to students in an art room who are there for 9-10 weeks. I find myself getting very frustrated with students, especially my 8th graders who chose art, who refuse to do the work and just want to socialize with their friends. I teach grades 6-8 in an urban school district with over 70% poverty. I try to make the work applicable to their age group but no matter what I try it never fails there are always several students who just sit there and don’t even try. I tell all my students its not about ability but about perseverance that I am looking for. If they can’t draw something I tell them that is where I can help them to develop that skill.