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A Teacher Asked and Students Answered: What Motivates You to Learn?

Like most teachers, Dani Boepple devotes a lot of mental energy to devising ways to motivate and engage her students.

Motivation is a key part of learning—especially when students take on challenging material that requires more trial and error before the light bulb goes off. But what, precisely, sparks students’ motivation can be elusive, even for the most seasoned educators.

Boepple teaches science at McDonald Middle School in the Dallas metro area, which serves mostly students from low-income families. Over the years, Boepple has honed multiple strategies and tested theories on how best to motivate adolescents to learn about everything from the movement of plants to the human impact on ocean ecosystems.

But to determine which of her tricks are most effective, Boepple recently decided to ask her students—about 150 of them—what they think she does as a teacher that is most motivating to them. Her students agreed on a list of Boepple’s best motivational strategies. Here are four key ones she shared with Education Week.

1. Dive into the data

Top of her students’ list is the deep dive into their achievement data that Boepple does with each of them. The teacher starts the year by going over students’ achievement data from previous years, discussing where they are now academically, and setting goals for where they should be by the middle and end of their school year with her.

“They said that people don’t really talk to them about their scores, they just tell them, Oh, you’re behind,’ but they don’t know what that means,” she said.

Boepple said she nurtures a growth mindset by rewarding students as they reach small goals along the way to those big ones.

2. Use rewards that leave a mark

Rewards—from stickers to pizza parties—are a tried-and-true way to coax students to perform their best.

But Boepple likes using personalized rewards that also acknowledge student success. She has a laser engraver in her classroom and for every big test her students take, if they do well enough on it, they get their name and the name of the test engraved on a wooden plaque. Boepple also decorates the plaques with engravings of stars, plants, or other designs that relate to the test material.

The plaques are displayed on a wall where students take selfies with them to share on social media. At the end of the year, students get to take their plaques home.

Boepple also makes custom “science mastery” stickers for her classes—a less expensive alternative to a laser engraver—that she gives to students when they meet their goals.

“I don’t know why, but 8th graders love stickers. You would think that’s a very elementary thing but it’s not. They love to decorate their Chromebooks and their notebooks,” Boepple said. “Then, if they get a perfect score on the exam, which is hard to do, because my exams are not easy, they get a perfect score sticker. There are a few of those floating around that are very prized.”

3. Build a store stocked with aspiration

Students in Boepple’s school wear uniforms, but they’re allowed to ditch part of their uniforms if they are wearing college or military apparel. To leverage that as a tool for motivating students, Boepple constructed something she calls the “college closet,” turning part of her classroom into a store stocked with shirts and sweatshirts bearing the names of different universities.

Students earn tickets for meeting their academic goals. They then can use those tickets to buy shirts Boepple has found from second-hand stores and through donations.

“If they wear a college shirt, they don’t have to wear a uniform shirt, so that’s the cool thing to do,” Boepple said. “They said that really helps motivate them because they can’t afford to go buy a nice college sweatshirt. They are so grateful, and they wear them every day with pride. And when you ask them, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I earned this for mastering my test number three,’ or they can tell you how they got the shirt.”

4. Don’t forget the hamster (or millipede)

Class pets are a staple in many K-12 classrooms. In her small, personal zoo that includes a hamster, turtle, snails, and a giant millipede, Boepple saw another opportunity to motivate her students: They can earn time to play with the class pets by finishing their schoolwork correctly on the first try.

“A lot of them have not held a hamster or seen a turtle up close,” Boepple said, so the pets are a special—and highly motivating—treat.

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