Motivating Students - Steve Barkley

Motivating Students

As a classroom teacher I discovered early in my career that when I met with a learning specialist regarding special needs of one of my students, the strategies shared for me to try almost always had payoff with additional students. When she told me a student needed movement between activities to increase his focus, I found several other students who benefitted when I created that movement opportunity.

I was reminded of this impact of teaching strategies when reading an article in ASCD’s Education Update (Number 5 May 2013) titled Motivating Gifted Learners. Eric Cohen who teaches Honors Physics in Fairfax, Virginia reminds readers that, ”if you can’t keep these students motivated they may start tuning you out.”

Cohen offers three considerations:

Expand Their Horizons – Cohen notes that most high school science curriculum barely touches scientific discoveries of the last century. He uses current science stories to stretch his students and often himself. While the content of these current events may have only a loose and sometimes missing connection to what he is teaching, they are interesting, new, and fun. Cohen encourages his students to be curious allowing them to go off topic to explore ideas, connect to other disciplines, and increase their amazement about science.

Stimulate Creativity – Cohen requires one project a semester that has a creative component. He describes a project where students create their own questions and answer them. (How much chicken soup could you make if you used all the world’s chickens and how long would it take to heat all that water?)

Raise Your Expectations, and Then Raise Them Higher -Cohen works to motivate continuous complexity in student achievement. He provides students strategies for problem solving using easier problems and then upping the challenge as students progress. He usually provides the answers to difficult problems so students get immediate feedback as to whether their approach is headed in the right direction. He develops grading to encourage his students. His tests count for a large portion of his grade….but his quizzes are more difficult than his test. Quizzes can be retaken to improve the grade. Work hard on quizzes and you are prepared for the test.

Cohen concludes his writing, ”Students are motivated to work hard and enjoy that work when they are given time for creative and open-ended  projects that accompany a rigorous curriculum.”

I found some awesome similarities with Cohen’s suggestions and an article in the February 2013 Popular Science Magazine (page 44) which tells the story of Erik Demaine a computer scientist at MIT who became a professor there at age 20. His work has informed biology, robotics, and design and all stems from the same impulse: having fun.


Sir Ken Robinson has a Ted Video that supports the motivating elements suggested by Cohen.

(I recommend viewing it) He focuses on three key elements that can direct us to gain increased student learning;

Human Beings are Different and Diverse – schools should be offering a broad curriculum that celebrates various talents.

Curiosity is the Engine of Learning —the task of teachers is to “tap” that curiosity not build in student compliance.

Human Life is Creative – not standardized.

I just left a two day colloquium on teacher leadership and professional development. I was working with several members of a university teacher education department. I am sensing that those of us working in teacher development need to be asking some critical questions regarding how we are promoting Cohen’s elements: expanding the horizon, stimulating creativity, and raising the expectations. What does that kind of PD look and sound like?

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