Classroom Management Tips for Motivating Students

Jan 09, 2024

Some of the best ways to motivate students to learn are by building strong relationships, creating a positive learning environment, and allowing them to make real-life connections to their learning. These long-term strategies go a long way to creating a highly engaged classroom. For a quick boost in motivation or to influence your students to complete a particular task, check out these six strategies from the neuromarketing best practices found in the book Brainfluence by Roger Dooley and the science of persuasion in the book Influence by Robert Cialdini.

1. Leverage a tribe mentality

People are hardwired to want to connect with other people and feel like they are part of a group. Marketers have used this very effectively in campaigns like the "Hello, I'm a Mac/And I'm a PC." ads. In this instance, it was done overtly, but other times, it is done organically by consumers (think about a self-identified "Coke person" versus a "Pepsi person"). And, we’re all aware of the power of a little rivalry—just think about how much more we engage with sports when a "rival game" is coming up. My current city of Dallas becomes a sea of orange and red for the annual University of Texas versus University of Oklahoma gameday, and people who usually have no interest in college football are instant super fans.

Classroom application:

Let’s say you’re preparing your class for a state reading assessment. Split the class up into teams and create a friendly competition by giving students practice passages to complete. Post the percentage of students who "passed" on a visual display. As students enter the classroom, refer to the chart and encourage them by saying something like, "It looks like one team edged out the other last time. Can you beat them today?" or "One team barely won last time. I'm thinking the other team might beat them today." Creating this kind of (friendly) rivalry between class sections or groups can be a great way to increase students’ motivation. Just be careful to always base your rivalries on something random like class section instead of any academic or demographic differences.

2. Influence choice by providing a decoy

Providing choice is a well-known way to motivate students because it gives them ownership over their learning. However, offering those choices while still maintaining control over your classroom and making sure that students learn what they need to can be easier said than done. Sometimes, giving your students a gentle push toward a specific choice can help. To influence students' choices, try providing a decoy—a similar alternative to your preferred choice that is in some way inferior. This makes the preferred choice more attractive because, as Brainfluence author Roger Dooley states, "Our brains aren't good at judging absolute values, but they are always ready to compare values and benefits."

Classroom application:

Let’s say you’ve just wrapped up a unit, and you want to give your students the ability to choose which project they complete to demonstrate their understanding. However, you also really want more of your students to get some experience with video editing, so you want to ensure that a solid majority chooses that option. Instead of just giving them three completely unique options—for instance, creating a shoebox diorama, a PowerPoint presentation, or a video—add a fourth option similar to creating a video, like creating a video with a written essay. Few students will choose the video with essay option because it's more work, but having it available makes the standard video option look a lot more attractive and will entice more students to choose it.

3. Utilize the power of scarcity

The less available something is, the more people want it. In his “Science of Persuasion” video, Robert Cialdini mentions that when British Airways announced in 2003 that it would be phasing out the twice-daily flight between London and New York on the Concorde supersonic airliner, sales the very next day took off. Nothing changed about the flight except that it had become scarce.

Classroom application:

Want your students to sign up for a club or after-school tutoring? Let them know that there are a limited number of spots available (if this is true), and emphasize what they stand to lose if they don't join. Talk about the member-only benefits like field trips and fun experiments, and incorporate some type of limited-time offer. For instance, let students know that they have to join by a certain date and must attend the first meeting in order to be eligible to go on the first field trip or participate in the first fun activity.

4. Use consistency

People want to be consistent with what they have previously said or done. To demonstrate this, Cialdini cites a famous set of studies in which residents of a neighborhood were asked to erect a wooden sign in their yards to encourage safe driving. In one neighborhood, very few residents agreed to put up the sign, but in a similar neighborhood nearby, four times as many people agreed to put up the sign. Why? Ten days previously, those in the second neighborhood had been asked to put a small postcard-sized sign in their front windows to support safe driving, and because it was such a small ask, many people agreed to do it. Because of that initial commitment, many more people said yes when they were later asked to put up the larger wooden sign. To use this strategy most effectively, try to gain small, voluntary, and public commitments first; it works even better if those commitments are in writing.

Classroom application:

Want your students to turn in their homework? Instead of handing them a list of homework assignments for the week, make students write down their assignments (and due dates!) themselves in a planner or journal. In a recent study cited by Cialdini, a health clinic reduced missed appointments by 18 percent simply by having patients write down their appointment details on a reminder card themselves instead of having the office staff do it for them. Writing down the assignment is a small commitment that can lead to students actually completing the work.

5. Be likable

This one is simple—people prefer to say to people who they like. So, if you want to be more persuasive, it’s important to take a hard look at how likable you are. For some people, this is pretty easy, but for others, especially introverts who may be perceived as aloof or pretentious, it will take a little effort. There are three important factors that determine whether we like someone: we like people who are similar to us, we like people who give us compliments, and we like people who cooperate with us. Keep in mind that this isn’t a judgment of whether or not you’re a good person—it’s about evaluating the kind of impression your behavior leaves.

Classroom application:

Look for similarities between your childhood experiences and those of your students, and draw those parallels when opportunities arise. For instance, if you have a student who is really into Star Wars, mention the Millennium Falcon model that you are working on at home. I've heard the phrase, "Students don't have to like me, but they do have to respect me." That may be true, but you'll have more influence if they like you and respect you.

6. Take advantage of positive peer pressure

People do what other people are doing. Cialdini cites research that when the sign that is now common in hotel rooms reading, "Please reuse your towels because it helps the environment" was replaced with a sign that read something like, "75 percent of our guests reuse their towels; please do so as well," then the percentage of guests who reused towels increased by 26 percent. When the sign said, "75 percent of the guests who stayed in this room reused their towels," the increase was 33 percent. So, the consensus effect is amplified by how similar the other people who are exhibiting the desired behavior are to us.

Classroom application:

Are you trying to convince your students to use the test-taking strategies you’ve spent so much class time on? As students are working, walk around the room and say something like, "Almost all of you are using the strategies we’ve been practicing; that's great, and it's going to help you get a better grade." Or, once the papers are graded, say, "About 90% of you used all of your strategies on the test, and you will notice how it helped you to answer more questions correctly." This technique can also work with getting students to line up quietly, turn in homework on time, or do nearly anything else that a majority of the students are already doing.

Looking for more ways to optimize your classroom and improve student motivation and results? Check out this blog post to learn how to optimize student performance through the science of timing.

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