Second Semester's Biggest Struggle: Motivation

How to entice teenagers to stay engaged and continue learning despite the arrival of spring.

By Stef Durr


Person helping another person climb up a rock

With spring break just around the corner and the year’s end within sight, kids are mentally checking out and losing interest in school. While teaching is rewarding and fulfilling, this time of year is always a little rough. And those teachers who work with the pre-teen/teen population face a unique set of challenges. By this point in the semester, it is tough to get teens to participate in class, and they aren't consistently diligent about finishing their homework (which happens to be necessary for the following day’s lesson). Additionally, they’ve started questioning the world around them, and this curiosity often manifests itself as resistance. They are too old for behavior charts, and a class reward system isn’t as effective as it was in elementary school. By spring, most pre-teen/teens are no longer embarrassed if the teacher calls them out for talking or passing notes. All of this conspires to move the teacher's struggle from making academic content accessible, to keeping pupils motivated to learn.

What is a middle school or high school teacher to do when breaks are looming and motivation is running low? First of all, it helps to remember that motivation and engagement are directly linked. Next, try a few of these ideas designed to counter the struggle between unmotivated learners and the need to continue educating.

Offer Options and Choices

It could be the simplest thing, but kids appreciate the opportunity to make selections for themselves. Whether you present multiple styles of graphic organizers, give two options for a daily reading assignment, or take a class vote on which video to watch, choices give pupils the opportunity to use their voices. It works in much the same way as asking someone questions to engage him in a conversation. A minute earlier, he might have been close to dozing off, but as soon as you ask him a question, he refocuses and engages in a discussion with you .

Include Topics of Interest

Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that as an English teacher, I’m usually not teaching the material. Instead, the material (whether it is a novel, poem, or newspaper article) is used to teach a skill set. It’s pretty obvious that selecting a biography on Jay-Z or Jennifer Aniston will be increasingly more interesting to your middle and high schoolers than pulling out a biography on Edgar Allen Poe. As the school year is winding down, whenever it's possible, use topics that you know will interest your pupils. If I’m using pictures to discuss inferencing, instead of using a mild picture, I search for an image that might prove more interesting for my class. It takes a little more prep time, but it will save you time in the classroom because your kids will be engaged and more ready to learn.

Plan Movement

In a 50-minute class period, try to get your class up and moving at least once every 15-20 minutes. Whether it’s something simple, like standing up if they agree with an answer, or walking to a designated place in the classroom to identify their position on an issue, the movement helps students to focus and reset. Working with partners or groups after a short period of direct instruction has a similar effect.

Play Games 

Encouraging friendly competition is one of the easiest ways to get all students interested and motivated. If you’re teaching commas in English, biology terms, or important dates in history, split your class into teams and set up a relay. Just create a worksheet on the content you'd like your class to review, and split the class into small groups. In each group, one person starts with the team’s paper. He answers one question and passes the sheet to the next person on the relay team. Group members aren’t allowed to help each other, and they can only complete one question per turn. If a member decides to skip his turn, he writes his initials at the top of the page. If he skips again, he places a check mark by his name. This allows you to see which students potentially need more review before an upcoming assessment. When you play games in class, kids get an adrenaline rush, and it provides an opportunity to informally assess your learners.

Set Time Limits

Ready, set, go! It's no surprise that kids will take as long as you give them to complete an assignment. If you time them in certain activities and situations, it gives them a sense of urgency. For dividing your class into groups, time them by counting down how long they have to get into their groups. If they have a PDN (Please Do Now) or bell-ringer, set the clock for three minutes. If they peer-edit with a partner, set the clock. If they’re working on something in class for an extended period of time, give them time updates. This keeps pupils focused and motivated. 

Dispense Rewards

One of my most effective rewards is a game called Silent Ball. I don’t have the class stand on chairs or desks-that seems unnecessary. Instead, the class spreads out around the room and each person stays in one spot throughout the game. One round of silent ball takes less than three or four minutes, making it the perfect reward. Plus, it’s a silent game! This game is absolutely amazing at getting your kids up and moving, interested, excited, and quiet at the same time. My kids are always begging me to play Silent Ball!

These are all ideas that can be easily worked into your daily plans. If you have any suggestions for the Lesson Planet community, please feel free to comment below. It’s amazing what happens when great minds come together.