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The Best Ways to Motivate Students Online

October 26, 2020
Kelly L
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In a world of constant unknowns where pandemic lockdowns have forced many teachers into the online classroom, it’s especially hard to keep students motivated during distance learning. I mean... Let’s be real, it can be hard to motivate students in the classroom, let alone online where we have no control over the student’s environment and where distractions abound. For many teachers, the tail end of the 2019-20 school year was rough, to say the least. However, I did learn a lot of ways to motivate students online and I want to share this knowledge with you.

Online Classroom Fear and Self Care

We’re now moving into an era where online teaching, be it in large or small scale, is likely here to stay… and it’s not comfortable for everyone. It’s okay if you’re feeling a bit anxious or even fearful of teaching in an online classroom. Do your best to embrace those feelings and hopefully it’ll provide some extra motivation to figure out how to do this online teaching thing. Don’t let the fear and anxiety stop you from taking care of your #1 top priority which is, and forever will be, to take care of yourself. Good self care for teachers (insert link) allows you to be your best, give your best to your students and deal with the insecurities of distance learning the best you can. Don’t neglect it!

Relationships Are the Main Way to Motivate Students Online

Once you are taking care of yourself, there is one core element to teaching at a higher level and motivating your students online: Building Relationships. This doesn’t mean that we need to be besties with our students (being friends first often backfires), but we do need to care about them and value them and the future person we are helping shape them to be. Always remember that there is a person on the other end of that screen who we need to build a relationship with. Secondarily, we need to have excellent classroom management and materials to help them excel in their studies online and in life.

Figuring Out Teaching Online

You may have had some of these questions cross your mind or weigh on your conscience:

  • How can we do this all while being online?
  • How do we get to know our students during remote learning?
  • How do we create that sense of community within our classroom online?
  • How do we motivate students during distance learning?

The “how” questions can go on and on… Don’t expect to find the answers right away. They come with time as you refine how it best works for you to motivate your online learners and adapt with the classroom dynamics. Let all those questions “rest” for a bit and focus on implementing these “tactics and strategies” for motivating your students. The answers will come.

Two Key Areas of Student Motivation

We’ve talked about relationships being the crux of student motivation but a poorly managed classroom can sabotage the best relationships. That’s why you also can’t neglect your classroom management plan. In a big way, it’s also a classroom motivation plan. We’ll cover both as I share how to build relationships and manage a class online.

Relationships Lead to Caring, Which Increases Motivation

Good relationships are the “gold” to having a great classroom community. The more we know about them, the more the students realize we care, the more motivated the students are to do the work. Let’s face it, if a student doesn’t think you care, they aren’t going to care much about the class. This is especially true in an online classroom.

Online Teaching Tips for Growing Student Relationships

Here are some “go-to tips” on how to get to know your students and build relationships during remote learning.

Use Icebreakers

Just like in the classroom, you can do icebreakers virtually. Some examples would be: Whose is it? … Would you rather? … Two Truths and a Lie … Same and Different Team Building … etc.

Use Get To Know You Sheets

You’ve probably got a few of these filed away. They work great for online class too. If you don't have any, you can pick up poster-sized packs of 30 from Scholastic (17 x 22 inches).

Use Gallery View - 6 Game Ideas

Gallery view is when you can see most, if not all, of your students' faces on one screen. Here are some game ideas to make the most of it.

1- Pass the Word

Make an imaginary ball, hold the ball, say a word and then someone’s name as you pass the imaginary ball. To start you pretend you have an imaginary ball, you will then say a word like “car” and a students name, “Kelly”, then you pass the ball, Kelly will say a word like “ride” then she will say another students name and pass the ball. “Kevin”, Kevin may say “bike” and each student keeps saying a word that somehow goes with the word before them. It may be best to set a timer to do this game or until someone can’t think of a word. Most students will state words that they are familiar with and like to do. This will help everyone get to know each other.

2- Where in the World Is…

Ask, “Where is Emily?” then everyone points to where they are on their screen, then Emily asks, “Where in the world is Jake?” Jake then asks “Where is Carlee?” and it keeps going until everyone's name is called.

3- Scavenger Hunt

Go find something that starts with the letter… First person back with something that starts with that letter gets to decide what letter to find next. (Be sure to give a time limit.)

4-Musical Chairs with Dancing Instead

Cameras on! Play music then shut it off and whoever is the last dancing is out.

5- Write a Story together

Each student adds a new sentence to the story as it unfolds. If you want, you can give it a theme and start it off with, “Once upon a time there was a…”

6- Pow/Wow

Take turns, each student says something that makes them feel sad (pow) and then they share something that is awesome (wow). I love this idea from The Owl Teacher because you get key insights into the students life.

There are a LOT of other ways to build relationships. Every class is unique. You have to test and try different things to find what works best. Remember that your students are people who crave love and acceptance, so give it to them (but also have boundaries - aka classroom management). With an online classroom you may be thinking that classroom management goes out the window, but it’s definitely not the case. You have to modify it for sure, but as you move forward you’ll be inspired by different activities, strategies and tactics to put into play that will make all the difference.

Online Classroom Management that Motivates

It may seem a bit counterintuitive to think that constraints will motivate, but believe me when I say that a classroom management plan is magical when you do it right. When children know what is expected and you hold the line until they fall-in-line, it frees you and them to focus on what’s most important: Teaching, Learning & Relationships. Overall, keep it as simple as possible. Here are some tips to simplify your online classroom and make it a motivator.

Simplicity is Your Friend

Be the Change You Wish to See in the World Motivational Poster

Keeping your online classroom setup simple can actually help motivate your students (or at least not distract them). Just like a messy desk decreases efficiency, placing too many items in your online classroom can give your students anxiety or pull their focus away as they try to count how many Beanie Babies are on display behind you. Keep it simple. A motivational poster in the background, a quote of the day, or some classic books neatly stacked next to a family picture are all great ideas.

Some teachers really enjoy using props to engage students and help them stay on task, which can work really well… However, this can easily become an organizational nightmare. And when you’re not organized, you know that you’re in for a struggle. This is where ManyCam can save a teacher’s day! It’s like a huge resource of props and interactive elements that you can pull up right on your screen. It’s definitely worth checking out!

Technology Should Help Simplify

Even though ManyCam is a lot of fun, you should only use it if it helps simplify things for you. Technology will be your best friend, or a big distraction and headache. So before you start jumping from one cool app to another, you must understand how to use your basic classroom technology (the core platform and applications you use for teaching). This will be a huge help to effectively managing your classroom. Setting it up right can be tricky at times, so if you are all on your own and feeling lost, then it's definitely worth finding an efficient and easy-to-understand guide to help get you started, like this step-by-step guide for Google Classroom.

Keep the System Simple

I don’t know about you, but when we went completely online at the end of the 2019-20 school year I could hardly keep up with all the email notifications, and trying to figure out how each teacher wanted things for my own children was so frustrating! It’s critical that you make things as streamlined and as simple as possible - from logging into class to turning in assignments and everything in between.

Keeping things simple isn’t always so simple for the teacher. It will require some extra work and planning upfront, but it will save you in the long run. No matter what online classroom platform you are using, you can make it eye catching and simple for your students. As the teacher, something might seem obvious to you, but parents and students might be at a total loss on how to do it. So be sure to have a friend, parent, or neighbor run through it for you and provide feedback before releasing it to the whole class.

As far as your online portal goes, think minimalist. Ask yourself, “What is the simplest, easiest way to have this.” For example, on your menu system you can start with a “Home” and “Grades” tabs for your main menu, then choose a basic structure within the virtual classroom. As each week goes by, keep a consistent schedule of what is due when that is clearly posted and easy for students to find.

Consistency and Simplicity in Weekly Routines and Assignment Pacing

With an online classroom you may need to dial your assignment pacing back to make it work well. For example, you could have one main reading assignment each week with a quiz on Friday, or you could have each day be a designated day for certain assignments to be due. Make sure the students know exactly what is due and on what day. Don’t change it up. Having a routine online is a good thing - just like it is in the face to face classroom. It takes all of the anxiety out of having to do something new for both the teacher and the students. Consistency and simplicity will help to take away all the questions of where things are located and motivate the students dive deeper into their learning.

Motivate Your Students with Hooks & Attention Getters

Attention getters (or lesson hooks) are a great way to help motivate students. Start virtual lessons with a video on youtube, a story or a teaser related to your content. They should intrigue your students and give a “hint” as to what the lesson may be about. Get them curious, because it makes them want to learn.

Cliffhanger (Tease) the Next Lesson as You Transition

Remember that transitions are often the most challenging times in classroom management. To help students come back ready for more, you can leverage a good cliffhanger - just like a good TV series would leave you hungry to come back and watch the next episode. You can do this by teasing a relevant story you’re going to tell… or maybe it’s something embarrassing about yourself that you’re going to share. Kids love to hear embarrassing stories! Teasers are fun because we hear them all the time, “Coming Up…” Stay tuned…” or my favorite, “But wait, there’s more…” Use them to your advantage. Here’s how.

There are two requirements for a TEASER to work effectively:

First, the tease must be related to the subject for it to get the students truly interested in the topic. So make sure that your embarrassing moment relates in someway… Otherwise, what is the point, right?!

Second, the teaser must deliver. The students will not stay motivated to learn if they get teasers that don’t deliver. It’s like a great movie trailer but a terrible movie.

That’s why it takes some serious thought and a bit of planning to get it right the first time. But once you get it, you can use it over and over again with each new class you teach. It’s beautiful!

Compelling Questions Are Great Motivators for All Ages

From elementary to middle school to high school and beyond, compelling questions are a great way to hook your students into an attentive learning mode - motivation at its finest! Think about when someone asked you a question that you knew the answer to, but couldn’t quite remember. It was on the tip of your tongue, but it just wouldn’t come. It likely became all-consuming to remember the answer… This happens to me all the time and then after many hours of mental strain (or typically in the middle of the night at 2am in the morning), I finally remember the answer. Our mind loves to make connections and a compelling question taps right into this psychology to help students stay focused and attentive to make the connection (close the loop).

Questions to Ask During Distance Learning

If you think about most lessons, we teach first and then ask questions after - BORING! You’ll lose half the class for sure that way. So before you teach, start thinking about great questions to lead off with based around “needs” and “wants” that will create a compelling need for your students to find the answer. I like to start brainstorming questions a week in advance. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with when you give yourself some time. They will come to you at random moments, so be sure to have something handy to write them down on (your phone or a notebook).

For example, Mystery Doug is another great resource for online and in-class teaching. He always leads off with a question, which pulls you through the entire lesson. The question you pose can be even more powerful if it’s a compelling NEED for students to know the answer.

On the flip-side you can also ask questions on what the students WANT to know… Or have the class vote beforehand on what they think the correct answer is so they will stay tuned in and attentive to see if they are right. When you do it right, you’ll know because they will either yell out, “I knew it!” or “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.”

I know I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. For questions to motivate the students online, the questions should be related to the content and lesson. It needs to make them intrigued and challenge their minds to find the right answer. These questions will also help self-motivate students to learn more on their own… You’ll know it when they talk to you after class or during breaks about what else they learned on the topic. Be sure to praise them because they are developing a love of learning that is key for life-long success.

Motivate Online Learners by Setting Goals Together

Besides questions and hooks, setting goals can be an incredible motivator for students. As a teacher, we always have goals to work towards and so should our students. Schedule in-class “goal time” to share ideas, work on and follow up on goals. You can give the students some guiding tips, but have them think up and set their own goals. You will obviously have some in mind for them to do, but don’t force those on them. First we need the student to “buy in” and create a habit of setting and achieving goals… Even if the goal sounds somewhat ridiculous to you. Help them craft it in a way that takes effort, but is realistic and achievable. Be sure to include both short term and long term goals for the school year.

Using “Goal Time” Effectively

After goals are set, you and your student need to schedule a specific day each week or month to follow up on their goal progress. At the beginning, work on creating a plan to help them meet that goal within the time frame they’ve set. One great way to do this is to start at the end and work your way backwards by listing out all the key steps it takes to get there. Once you have the steps, allot an amount of time it takes to complete each step, and then spread them out over the calendar. Basically, you’re setting mini-goals (milestones) to help them reach the bigger goal.

Make sure to never miss 1:1 “goal time.” It doesn’t have to be anything formal either. You can do it during your regular in-class “goal-getting time” and pull students into a breakout room one at a time to follow up. These one-on-ones keep them accountable and show that you care (building relationships). Learning to set and achieve goals is a life-long skill, so be sure to celebrate even when they don’t reach their goal. Praise them for what they did well and help them do it better next time.

When you do it this way, you hit the students with a double-whammy of motivation juice. On one side, they set the goal themselves, so it’s something they’re actually interested in doing. On the other side your follow-ups help them stay on track and accountable. Whether it be by remote online learning or face to face in the classroom, these two elements make motivation for setting and reaching goals sky-high.

How to Build Classroom Community in an Online Classroom

You now have several ways to motivate students at your disposal, but what about the classroom community? A positive community can be a powerful tool to motivate students to show up, share and participate. The fact that we are all in different places does seem to make the idea of it more difficult, but I assure you that it is possible and easier than you might think. In fact, after teaching online for a few months you’ll be surprised how connected you feel with the students (even if their only interaction is through chat). Here are several ways to motivate students with classroom community in the online world.

Have a Classroom Presidency or Special Helper of the Day

For older students you can vote for a class presidency that gets the day rolling, does student spotlights, takes roll, and works with you to reach out to students who may be struggling. For younger classes you can have a special helper for the day who gets to help you lead out in class. Think about anything you’re doing that a student could be doing for you and figure out how to hand it off to them. It is more work in the beginning to help them get there, but it’s worth the investment and planning. It will free you up in the long-run.

Don’t Ignore the Chat

I realize that not all online classrooms have the ability to chat, but if yours does then I highly recommend using it. Be sure that you have rules to not spam and keep chat on topic (let the class decide what the rules are). Just like any rules you will need to hold the line for a while as misbehaviors in chat happen. You might be tempted to ignore things that are shared and deal with them later, but there is no better time to do it then the here and now. As long as you do it in a way that doesn’t embarrass the kid.
As the students use the chat appropriately, you will gain valuable insights into their life to help build those relationships. When getting started it is challenging to manage the chat and teach. It takes time and patience. In the beginning you can have your presidency help monitor it to catch things you miss, open chat at specific times or copy and save it for later to review after class for any nuggets.

Take Notes on Students

Some students will be tough to get to open up and share about themselves. Don’t let that discourage you. Continue asking those prying questions and soon enough they will start to share helpful information about themselves. Take a few minutes every day to take notes on a handful of your students. I like to use a digital format like Evernote or Google Docs because I can search them so easily. When I have moments of brain fog and can’t remember which student was interested in “Korean pop music.” I can easily search my notes for who it was. Remembering these little insights and bringing them up will go miles to show your student that you care and are invested in him/her. You’ll probably find that because the students are at home (in their element), they’ll be more comfortable about sharing and you shouldn’t have a problem keeping the conversation going.

Involve Parents in Your Classroom Community

When I was in a brick-and-mortar classroom I used to only see parents at parent teacher conferences. Now I get to see them almost every time I meet with their child. They are like my on-deck teacher’s assistant and I’ve found that the parents love to share with me. They’re struggling with the whole online schooling as much as the teachers, so we end up supporting each other. Be sure to ask them a lot of questions, take notes and bring up those things the next time you meet.

When you and the parents are on the same page it leaves no room for students to “game the system.” Once the student knows this they are often more motivated to work hard for both of you.

Motivating Students in the Online Classroom Review

We’ve gone over a lot, so my advice to you is take a few pieces from here and implement them. Then, once you’ve got those down, come back and add some more to your classroom motivation plan. There are so many ways you can motivate students during distance learning. Primarily, get to know your students from your very first meeting, and dedicate time for icebreakers and games. Write a silly story together and have fun with it. Set goals with your students one-on-one and really take the time to get to know each student as they bring their unique personality and talents to your classroom. Once you have broken through the students’ barrier and they know you truly care, they will be motivated to “show up” and deliver.

Distance learning has been a wonderful eye opening experience for me. Relationships with parents are just as important as the students, so be sure to talk regularly with the parents or guardians. Make sure you are all on the same page. No one is used to this way of learning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it together successfully. We can all show that we are ready to take this on and be successful. With everyone working together, we can do this!

Teacher Kelly
Kelly L
Whether you're a teacher or a parent, the strategies that I share are the ones that actually work for helping you manage kids in the classroom or the home. They took me years of trial, error and refinement. This is the resource that I wish I would have had as a new teacher. Nothing would make me happier than helping you have a blissful experience in your classroom day after day. Cheers!
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About Kelly
Teacher Kelly
Kelly here (that's me on the right), I'm the teacher behind Classroom Bliss. My hope is that no one has to go through the years of struggle I had as a teacher before finding the strategies that actually work for managing a classroom and enjoying teaching. This site is a true shortcut to success for teaching and running a classroom. Nothing would bring me more joy than helping you make your classroom a true bliss... one where you're excited to go to work each day!
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