What I Wish I Had Known about Student Motivation

“You’re a smart kid; I just wish you’d apply yourself in my class.”


Most teachers have uttered a similar phrase. I know I did. I remember one student particularly well; we’ll call him Jerry. His quick answers and witty insights—when he paid attention—told me he was smart enough to be doing better than he was.


My pep talks with Jerry never did much good, though. Sometimes, the more I goaded, the less he tried, which frustrated my ambitions of channeling Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society, inspiring students to hang on every word of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Emily Dickinson. It felt like even if I stood on my desk dramatically reciting “O Captain! My Captain!” Jerry’s response would’ve been the same: meh.

Sending students the wrong message

Years later, while digging into research on student motivation, I realized what I had gotten wrong. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that telling students they are smart actually lowers their motivation and achievement. In an experiment, Dweck and her colleagues treated two groups of students quite differently. They consistently praised one group for its ability, saying things like, “Wow. You got eight right; you must be really smart.” They praised the second group for effort: “Wow. You got eight right; you must have worked really hard.”


The students hearing continual praise for their ability developed a “fixed-mindset” and came to believe that achievement or “smarts” was innate, not developed through effort. Consequently, they began to avoid challenging tasks, fearing that if they tried and failed, they no longer would appear smart. On the other hand, 90 percent of the students hearing praise for their effort took on more challenging tasks and found they actually enjoyed the work.


My first mistake, then, was telling Jerry he was smart.


My second was trying to guilt trip him. I played on the fact that Jerry seemed to like me, saying, “Come on, you really should read The Scarlet Letter. Do it for me.”


The right kind of teacher talk


Edward Deci, who spent his career researching intrinsic motivation, found that motivation stems from two deep psychological needs: competence and self-determination. We enjoy challenging activities if we choose them. Even positive feedback from teachers can undermine motivation if it comes across as coercing students (“You should keep up the good work.”). What’s more effective is providing feedback on how students measure up to a defined standard.


What I realized, too late, was that teacher talk is incredibly important. When teachers aren’t thoughtful about what they say in classrooms or write on papers, they can chip away at students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.


Here are a couple of examples I’ve drawn from research showing “should” and “should nots” when it comes to teacher talk.


  • Say this (growth mindset) . . . "Your practice is really paying off. You're getting your math facts down."
  • Not this (fixed mindset) . . . "Wow, that was quick! You blazed right through those problems! You’re a math whiz."
  • Say this (growth mindset) . . . "You seem frustrated and tired right now. That means your brain is working hard. We’ll keep at it, and I know you’re going to get it."
  • Not this (fixed mindset) . . . "Not everyone is a natural at this. Let’s do a few more problems and then move on to something you’re better at."

If I could do it over again with the benefit of hindsight, I’d tell Jerry something like this: “You’ve got a lot of potential. Right now, it’s going to waste. I’d like to help you unleash it, but that’s up to you.”


What kind of teacher talk did you hear when you were a student?

Read about Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.

Learn more about Edward Deci and self-determination theory.


Join my upcoming session at the ASCD annual conference, "Bored to Death: What We Know (and Ignore) about Student Motivation. Sunday, March 25, 3:00-4:30 pm room 111, Pennsylvania Convention Center, First Level.


Bryan Goodwin is the author Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.  


  • I recently graduated with my degree in Childhood Education. I don't currently have a full time teaching position, but one of the things I have been thinking about is how to motivate students when I do have my own classroom. As I read this post, I couldn't help but think that I have tried to motivate students I've encountered by telling them they are smart. In my mind I thought that if I can convicne them that they are smart, they'll try harder. But, as I read this post further, it started to make sense that I wasn't motivating them to work hard- I was putting their faith in natural capabilities, not in their effort. I had a "lightbulb moment". Instead of saying "I know you're smart, you can do this," I should be saying something more like "You're very capable, but it does take effort. I know you can put the effot in if you choose to." In encouraging students I need to put more focus on the growth mindset, letting students know that they will see improvement when they really put in effort, not just by "being smart." Thank you so much for this post! It really helped me to think deeper about what I will say to students! 

    Anna_McCune, 3 months ago | Flag
  • Interesting piece. I often reflect on my talks with students and wish that I had responded in a different way. I plan to look into the resources you identified in your post...
    Jennifer_Davis_Bowman, 9 months ago | Flag
  • Trevor, I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. For what it's worth, I've expanded on these ideas in my new book, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, coming soon here: http://shop.ascd.org/Default.aspx?TabID=55&productid=103303861&the-12-touchstones-of-good-teaching:-a-checklist-for-staying-focused-every-day
    Bryan_Goodwin, 1 year ago | Flag
  • As a new teacher this blog is one of my favorite ones that I have read. Thanks Bryan

    Trevor_Fritz, 1 year ago | Flag
  • Patrick - A great story about your school experience. With high test scores but little motivation, I'm wondering if you were then labeled an underachiever, or perhaps called a slacker or just plain lazy. I've working with a lot of grade school students who were motivated to learn more in school if the topic was of interest to them. Sometimes, I had a hard time pulling kids away from focusing only on one topic. It was sometimes a tough call to tell them there is more to life than only getting into in-depth study of airplanes.
    Richard_Lange, 2 years ago | Flag

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