Why Most Motivation Strategies Just Don’t Work (and what you can do about it.)

Motivating Students

Feb 28

What are the four biggest classroom barriers that get in the way of your efforts to motivate students?

Go ahead. Take a guess. (Very few people get all four).

I’ll explain what they are in just a second but I’ll give you a hint: They all have to do with things that are easily overlooked by most teachers, and as a result, students end up bored, disengaged, and even defiant.

In fact, I am willing to bet that right now, you and your students are facing one or more of these barriers. What's more, you may not even recognize that they are keeping you from being able to fully reach and motivate your students.

That's because, these four barriers often hide in plain sight. They are just a part of the way we "do school." We don't even realize that we some of the things we do every day may be unintentionally DE-motivating our students.

Most of the time, it's not even your fault. Many of us were actually TRAINED to teach and run our classrooms this way. We think we are doing the right thing when in fact, the very things we were taught to do to motivate our students are actually undermining our efforts.

So, let's tackle these barriers now, get them out of the way so that we can focus on helping our students invest themselves wholeheartedly and consistently in our classrooms and in their own learning.

Identify how much the 4 barriers are interfering with student motivation in your classroom. Get the Classroom Barrier Anticipation Worksheet – and 4 other FREE resources to help you boost motivation – here.


​The Four Barriers That Keep Students From Fully Investing In Your Classroom

There are four key barriers that keep students from investing in your classroom. They are -- Institutional, Internal, Interpersonal, and Instructional barriers – and if you don’t address these head on, they can derail even your best efforts to motivate your students.

Institutional Barriers are those policies, procedures, and rules of engagement that make some students feel invisible or marginalized in your classroom. If students feel that the rules automatically prevent them from ever being successful in your class, they will not invest themselves in your classroom.

For instance, I remember that I used to penalize late work by 50% no matter when students turned it in. So, if a student was late with a paper one day or 30 days, that paper could only earn 50% period.

Now, my intentions were honorable. I wanted to incentivize the students to turn their work in on time. By making my late work penalty harsh, I thought it would encourage students to meet deadlines in order to avoid losing so many points.

But here's what happened. If student were late with an assignment, they didn't bother to do it at all since the 50% penalty meant that they would essentially earn a failing grade anyway. So rather than incentivize students to turn their work in on time, I was actually DIS-incentivizing them.

Here's what else happened. At the end of the semester, when students saw that they were on the verge of failing, they would turn in reams of assignments on the last day of the marking period just to get the few points they needed to pass. Often, they would simply copy the work from another student. They knew they were going to earn a failing grade, but those points would be enough to help them to pass -- barely.

Here I was wanting students to do the work and engage with the assignment in a meaningful way, but my policy was actually getting in the way of their doing just that. Instead, my policy discouraged students from trying to make up the work or taking the work seriously.

When I finally realized that, I changed my policy and accepted late work for full credit but only up to the summative assessment. Now before you accuse me of being lax and kowtowing to my students, let me explain.

My goal was for students to do the work and engage in the work in a meaningful way, not punish them for not doing the work. By accepting the late work for full credit, I could get the students to do their best on an assignment and turn it in, even if they turned it in late. But, by only accepting it up until the summative assessment, I made the work meaningful. I told them that all the assignments in a unit were designed to prepare them for the summative assessment. So, it only made sense to accept the work before the summative assessment.

Here's what happened. I got MORE work from students, not less. And, I started getting BETTER QUALITY work from students as they started to see the significance of the work in helping them prepare for the summative assessment. So, rather than dis-incentivizing my students, my new policy actually helped them more fully invest in my classroom and in their own learning.

If you are not seeing results from your classroom policies and procedures, you may be facing this barrier.

Identify how much the 4 barriers are interfering with student motivation in your classroom. Get the Classroom Barrier Anticipation Worksheet – and 4 other FREE resources to help you boost motivation – here.


Internal Barriers are those things that make students feel like what they bring to the classroom – their personalities, their gifts, their experiences, and their ways of learning – are not valued or valuable in your classroom. If students feel that they are not valued, they will not invest themselves in their learning.

This barrier usually crops up when our students come from different backgrounds than we do. We have an idea of what an engaged, motivated student looks like, and if our students don't show us their motivation in a way that fits our image of what motivation looks like, we may unfairly assume that they are not motivated.

We all have those moments when we look back on our early days of teaching and cringe. Well, one of my most cringe-worthy moments was early in my teaching career when I am trying to facilitate a classroom discussion about The Great Gatsby. I had spent hours preparing a lesson that would illustrate the difference between "old money" and "new money" to my students. I love decor magazines so I found all these pictures of various rooms -- some decorated in a way that would signal "new money," and others decorated in a style that signaled "old money." My plan was to show them the pictures and ask them to describe the people who lived in the rooms as a way of helping them understand the subtle differences between the two.

On the day of the lesson, I started in on my carefully prepared lesson (that included several audio-visual aids and technology thank you very much) and my students yawned, put their heads on their desks, or stared out the window. It was painful.

And to be honest, I got a little annoyed at them (okay, I was MAD). How dare they? Here I was with a virtual dog and pony show and they did not appreciate my efforts. I am ashamed to admit it now, but in my head I called them lazy.

Have you ever felt that way?

But I plowed through my lesson anyway because I had spent all that time on it and because it was really important for them to understand the concept of "old money" and "new money" if they were going to understand the book. Finally, this one girl in the back raised her hand. "Is it kind of like that movie Titanic where they were mean to that lady because she had new money?" she asked.

I hadn't even realized that she was paying attention. "Yes, it's exactly like that," I nodded.

"Well why didn't you just say so," another student lifted her head from her desk. A few other students perked up. "I saw that movie," a third student offered. "I don't see why they were mean to her. She was the only one who was cool," a fourth student joined in.

Before long, we had a rich discussion about "old money" versus "new money" that segued beautifully into a discussion about the book.

Here I was judging them as being uninterested when in fact, they were very interested in the topic -- just not the way that I thought they'd be interested. If I had taken the time to recognize their currencies -- in this case by relating the lesson to something in their world rather than something from mine, then I would have found ways to motivate them rather than judge them for not engaging in something that I was into but they clearly weren't.

If there are some students you find it difficult to motivate and if you've ever found yourself judging those students because they never seem motivated, you may be facing this barrier.

​Identify how much the 4 barriers are interfering with student motivation in your classroom. Get the Classroom Barrier Anticipation Worksheet – and 4 other FREE resources to help you boost motivation – here.


Interpersonal Barriers have to do with the ways that you relate to students. Typically we try to motivate students based on what motivates us (as we discussed here). But, if you don’t understand what really drives and motivates your students, no strategy you try will work.

For example, my will driver is Mastery. I love to learn. So, it's really hard for me to understand someone not wanting to learn. That means that a lot of time when I face an unmotivated student, I just assume that he or she doesn't know how to learn. If they just learned how to learn, they would be motivated to learn.

Well that works great if they, like me are mastery driven. But what happens if they are purpose driven and need to understand WHY they are learning before they can be motivated to learn?

What happens if they are belonging driven and need to feel connected to me and to the classroom before they are motivated to learn?

What happens if they are autonomy driven and need onus and choice in order to be motivated to learn?

If I only try to motivate students with MY will driver, and do not take into account THEIR will driver, I will fail every time no matter how well-intentioned I am. And what makes matters worse, I won't even realize that I am on the wrong track because my will driver makes so much perfect sense to me, that I cannot even fathom someone being motivated differently.

If you've ever tried and tried to motivate a student using all your best motivators and it still hasn't worked, you are probably facing this barrier.

​Identify how much the 4 barriers are interfering with student motivation in your classroom. Get the Classroom Barrier Anticipation Worksheet – and 4 other FREE resources to help you boost motivation – here.


Instructional Barriers are things that prevent students from actively engaging in their learning. If you don’t understand how to engage students through your instruction, it is hard to keep them motivated to learn for very long.

This last barrier is perhaps the hardest to spot and the easiest to fix. The reason it is so hard to spot is because we are often following the lesson or units that we have been given. We think we are doing the right thing and on paper, we very well may be.

But, good teaching is not just about using the right lesson or the right strategies. Good teaching is about matching the right lesson and strategies to our students' current learning needs.

I call it the Goldilocks rule. If you want to keep your students motivated, your lessons cannot be too hard or too easy. They have to be just right.

Too hard, and your students will get frustrated and give up. Too easy and they will be bored and uninterested. Just right means that our lessons provide students with just enough challenge to stretch them and just enough support to make sure that they can eventually reach the goal on their own.

When you teach in that "just right" sweet spot, you can get and keep your students motivated. So, if you have students who are bored or who have given up, you may be facing an instructional barrier.

​Identify how much the 4 barriers are interfering with student motivation in your classroom. Get the Classroom Barrier Anticipation Worksheet – and 4 other FREE resources to help you boost motivation – here.


​So now that you understand the four Classroom Barriers, I want you to ask yourself -- which classroom barriers are currently impacting YOUR students' motivation?

If you’d like to analyze your classroom to see what Classroom Barriers may be getting in the way of your efforts to motivate your students, sign up below for our free Igniting Student Motivation Free Resource Kit, which includes our Classroom Barrier Assessment. It will help you identify the specific barriers that are keeping your students from fully investing in your classroom. In my next post, I’ll share how you can overcome these four barriers.

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