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Student Motivation

Know and accept your students as partners in their education

A girl is sitting in the middle of a pile of books staring at the book she's flipping through  with lots of confusion.

I recently took time to reflect on my teaching career and think about my methods for motivating students, especially during the hard slog of winter. One core item kept coming to the forefront. I gave my student choices. When I provided a deadline for an assignment or task, I engaged my students in conversations about their work in my class, as well as their other classes. I carefully observed their overall energy in response to the assignment deadline. I wanted to gauge the kind of load they were carrying during any given week. If a deadline reprieve was warranted, I usually asked my students if they needed more time with x or y. They would vote and the deadline would be extended. Recently, I came across an article from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, Motivating Students, by Chelsea Yarborough and Heather Fedesco. These educators suggested a series of strategies to develop and elevate student autonomy as it relates to motivation. One suggestion was:

“Have students identify preferred assignment deadlines.”1

Imagine that.

Throughout my 39 years as a teacher, my students taught me as much, if not more, as I taught them, including the most important lesson that we were partners in an educational journey. And if it was truly a partnership, there needed to be a realization on my part that my students were complete humans with lives that were knee deep in all kinds of things, seen and unseen, spoken and unspoken. School was only one part of their lives and my class was one part of many. I had to come to terms with respecting what my students valued as well as what expectations were placed on all of us by the nature of the administration, the district, and, at times, the local school board and the State Board of Education. That’s a lot to consider when you are looking at unmotivated kids in January with yearbook deadlines looming large.

I am convinced that student ownership of learning is key to motivation. Providing students the opportunity to exert their agency in decisions is part of that ownership.

Yarborough and Fedesco’s article offers sound insights into cultivating student motivation–something all teachers face. I’ll share the link here for you to take a deep dive at your convenience later. Here I will walk through some of the big ideas.

A group of three students sit together studying together. They are all looking through the same textbook and seem to be discussing.

Yarborough and Fedesco begin with the premise that the student’s perspective is simply, ‘What’s in it for me?’ when confronted with a learning task. They called it the Expectancy-Value-Cost model. This predictor of achievement model follows these threads from the student’s point of view:

  • Can I succeed at this?

  • Do I want to do this? If so, why do I want to do this?

  • Do I want to or do I have the time, energy or other resources needed to do this?

These 3 questions are the hurdles that teachers have to consider when introducing a unit of learning and any learning tasks and activities associated with that unit. When teachers enlist students in some authentic ways to address parts or all of these in a lesson’s design, students buy in and success may increase. If these 3 questions from the student’s point of view are not considered in the instructional design of a lesson, I guarantee student detachment. I’ve experienced it, and it can be challenging for both the teacher and the student.

In their article, Yarborough and Fedesco fleshed out an instructional design model, ARCS–attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction. The learning tasks are designed with each of these components in mind. Yarborough and Fedesco detail specific strategies for each component. The following are my favorite strategies that I implemented an had success, as well as those I wish I had known and used:


  • Where appropriate, use plays on words during redundant information presentation.

  • Use humorous introductions.

  • Use humorous analogies to explain and summarize.


  • Bring in alumni of the course as enthusiastic guest lecturers.

  • In a self-paced course, use those who finish first as deputy tutors.


  • Allow students the opportunity to become increasingly independent in learning and practicing a skill.

  • Have students learn new skills under low risk conditions, but practice performance of well-learned tasks under realistic conditions.


  • Allow a student to use a newly acquired skill in a realistic setting as soon as possible.

  • Verbally reinforce a student’s intrinsic pride in accomplishing a difficult task.

  • Allow a student who masters a task to help others who have not yet done so.

  • Reward intrinsically interesting task performance with unexpected, non-contingent rewards.

  • Reward boring tasks with extrinsic, anticipated rewards.2

A person sits at a desk with a book covering their face. They are looking intently at the book. There is a small of books next to them.

The partnership is the primary support for any student motivation strategy because you know and accept your students as partners in their education, and you truly understand the power to learn rests within them. So, knowing and accepting your students as partners in their education, and truly understanding the power to learn rests within the student, the partnership, then, is the primary support for any student motivation strategy. Honoring and respecting students by providing them real choices regarding what and how they learn, and how they present what they’ve learned, is critical. Yarborough and Fedesco provide further strategies to support student autonomy. Here are some from their article I know will create success:

  • Have students choose (yearbook) topics

  • Have students choose the medium with which they will present their work

  • Co-create rubrics with students (e.g., participation rubrics, assignment rubrics)

  • Have students choose the topics you will cover in a particular unit

  • Provide a safe environment for students to fail and then learn from their mistakes

  • Give students practice with feedback before assessments

  • Provide lots of early feedback to students

  • Have students provide peer feedback

  • Have students incorporate personal interests into their assignments

  • Share a meal with students or bring food to class

  • Incorporate group activities during class, and allow students to work with a variety of peers

  • Arrange formal study groups3

Motivating students can be a daunting challenge. But if you’ve made a relationship with your students and have created a partnership of some kind, strategies to assist your students in their motivation for the tasks before them becomes a little less difficult. For me, during the hardest weeks, I found sharing that meal or bringing that unexpected surprise for the class worked wonders! At least until the next hump in the road.

Feel free to contact United Yearbook Printing with any questions you may have. We would be glad to help you and your yearbook staff in any way we can!

Contributor: Lucy McHugh comes to United Yearbook Printing from a 39-year career in public and private school education. She was a former visual art teacher and yearbook adviser. She received a Bachelors of Science in Art from Columbia College in Columbia, SC, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nebraska in 2000, and in 2014 earned a Certificate in Catholic School Leadership from Loyola Marymount University. Lucy enjoys her family, making art and gardening.

Editor: Donna Ladner obtained a B.A. in Education and a minor in English from California Baptist University, and a M.S. in ESL from USC, Los Angeles. After she married Daniel, their family moved to Indonesia with a non-profit organization and lived cross-culturally for 15 years before returning to the U.S in 2012. Donna has been working as an editor and proofreader for TSE Worldwide Press and its subsidiary, United Yearbook since 2015.

1 Yarborough, C. B., & Fedesco, H. N. (2020). Motivating students. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved January 17, 2023 from

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

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