The Motivator Behavior Essay

As the majority of states across America adopt the Common Core Standards for reading and mathematics, teachers at all grade levels are eager to find tools that will encourage students to work harder to reach those ambitious outcome goals. Additionally, schools adopting Response to Intervention are seeking evidence-based strategies to motivate struggling students that can also be easily delivered in general-education classrooms.


Teacher praise is one tool that can be a powerful motivator for students. Surprisingly, research suggests that praise is underused in both general- and special-education classrooms (Brophy, 1981; Hawkins & Heflin, 2011; Kern, 2007).  This guide offers recommendations to instructors for using praise to maximize its positive impact.Effective teacher praise consists of two elements: (1) a description of noteworthy student academic performance or general behavior, and (2) a signal of teacher approval (Brophy, 1981; Burnett, 2001).




The power of praise in changing student behavior is that it both indicates teacher approval and informs the student about how the praised academic performance or behavior conforms to teacher expectations (Burnett, 2001). As with any potential classroom reinforcer, praise has the ability to improve student academic or behavioral performance—but only if the student finds it reinforcing (Akin-Little et al., 2004). Here are several suggestions for shaping praise to increase its effectiveness:


  • Describe Noteworthy Student Behavior. Praise statements that lack a specific account of student behavior in observable terms are compromised—as they fail to give students performance feedback to guide their learning. For example, a praise statement such as 'Good job!' is inadequate because it lacks a behavioral description (Hawkins & Heflin, 2011). However, such a statement becomes acceptable when expanded to include a behavioral element: "You located eight strong source documents for your essay. Good job!"
  • Praise Effort and Accomplishment, Not Ability. There is some evidence that praise statements about general ability can actually reduce student appetite for risk-taking (Burnett, 2001). Therefore, teachers should generally steer clear of praise that includes assumptions about global student ability (e.g., "You are a really good math student!"; "I can tell from this essay that writing is no problem for you."). Praise should instead focus on specific examples of student effort or accomplishment (e.g., "It's obvious from your grade that you worked hard to prepare for this quiz. Great work!"). When praise singles out exertion and work-products, it can help students to see a direct link between the effort that they invest in a task and improved academic or behavioral performance.
  • Match the Method of Praise Delivery to Student Preferences. Teachers can deliver praise in a variety of ways and contexts. For example, an instructor may choose to praise a student in front of a class or work group or may instead deliver that praise in a private conversation or as written feedback on the student's assignment. When possible, the teacher should determine and abide by a student's preferences for receiving individual praise. It is worth noting that, while most students in elementary grades may easily accept public praise, evidence suggests that middle and high-school students actually prefer private praise (Burnett, 2001). So, when in doubt with older students, deliver praise in private rather than in public.




Praise is a powerful motivating tool because it allows the teacher to selectively encourage different aspects of student production or output. For example, the teacher may use praise to boost the student's performance, praising effort, accuracy, or speed on an assignment. Or the teacher may instead single out the student's work product and use praise to underscore how closely the actual product matches an external standard or goal set by the student. The table below presents descriptions of several types of praise-statements tied to various student goals:


Praise: Goal


Student Performance: Effort.Learning a new skill requires that the student work hard and put forth considerable effort--while often not seeing immediate improvement.


For beginning learners, teacher praise can motivate and offer encouragement by focusing on effort ('seat-time') rather than on product (Daly et al., 2007).

"Today in class, you wrote non-stop through the entire writing period. I appreciate your hard work."

Student Performance: Accuracy.When learning new academic material or behaviors, students move through distinct stages (Haring et al., 1978). Of these stages, the first and most challenging for struggling learners is acquisition. In the acquisition stage, the student is learning the rudiments of the skill and strives to respond correctly.


The teacher can provide encouragement to students in this first stage of learning by praising student growth in accuracy of responding.

"This week you were able to correctly define 15 of 20 biology terms. That is up from 8 last week. Terrific progress!" 

Student Performance: Fluency.When the student has progressed beyond the acquisition stage, the new goal may be to promote fluency (Haring et al., 1978).


Teacher praise can motivate the student to become more efficient on the academic task by emphasizing that learner's gains in fluency (a combination of accuracy and speed of responding).

"You were able to compute 36 correct digits in two minutes on today's math time drill worksheet. That's 4 digits more than earlier this week--impressive!"

Work Product: Student Goal-Setting.A motivating strategy for a reluctant learner is to have him or her set a goal before undertaking an academic task and then to report out at the conclusion of the task about whether the goal was reached.


The teacher can then increase the motivating power of student goal-setting by offering praise when the student successfully sets and attains a goal. The praise statement states the original student goal and describes how the product has met the goal.

"At the start of class, you set the goal of completing an outline for your paper. And I can see that the outline that you produced today looks great—it is well-structured and organized."

Work Product: Using External Standard.Teacher praise often evaluates the student work product against some external standard.


Praise tied to an external standard reminds the student that objective expectations exist for academic or behavioral performance (e.g., Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics) and provides information about how closely the student's current performance conforms to those expectations.


When comparing student work to an external standard, the teacher praise-statement identifies the external standard and describes how closely the student's work has come to meeting the standard.

"On this assignment, I can see that you successfully converted the original fractions to equivalent fractions before you subtracted. Congratulations—you just showed mastery of one of our state Grade 5 math standards!"





One reason that praise is often underused in middle and high school classrooms may be that teachers find it very difficult both to deliver effective group instruction and to provide (and keep track of) praise to individual students.  Here are several informal self-monitoring ideas to help teachers to use praise with greater frequency and consistency:


  • Keep Daily Score. The teacher sets a goal of the number of praise-statements that he or she would like to deliver during a class period. During class, the teacher keeps a tally of praise statements delivered and compares that total to the goal.
  • Select Students for Praise: Goal-Setting and Checkup. Before each class, the teacher jots down the names of 4-5 students to single out for praise. (This activity can be done routinely as an extension of lesson-planning.) After the class, the teacher engages in self-monitoring by returning to this list and placing a checkmark next to the names of those students whom he or she actually praised at least once during the class period.
  • Make It Habit-Forming: Tie Praise to Classroom Routines. Like any other behavior, praise can be delivered more consistently when it becomes a habit. Here is an idea that takes advantage of the power of habit-formation by weaving praise into classroom routine:  (1) The teacher first defines various typical classroom activities during which praise is to be delivered (e.g., large-group instruction; student cooperative-learning activities; independent seatwork, etc.).  (2) For each type of activity, the teacher decides on a minimum number of group and/or individual praise statements that the instructor would like to deliver each day or class period as a part of the instructional routine (e.g., 'Large-group instruction: 5 praise-statements or more to the class or individual students', 'Independent seatwork: 4 praise-statements or more to individual students'). (3) The teacher initially monitors the number of praise-statements actually delivered during each activity and strives to bring those totals into alignment with the minimum levels previously established as goals. (4) As delivery of praise becomes associated with specific activities, the onset of a particular class activity such as large-group instruction serves as a reminder (trigger or stimulus) to deliver praise. In effect, praise becomes a habit embedded in classroom routine.


  • Akin-Little, K. A., Eckert, T. L., Lovett, B. J., & Little, S. G. (2004). Extrinsic reinforcement in the classroom: Bribery or best practice. School Psychology Review, 33, 344-362.
  • Brophy, J. (1981). Teacher praise: A functional analysis. Review of Educational Research, 51, 5-32.
  • Burnett, P. C. (2001). Elementary students' preferences for teacher praise. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 36(1), 16-23.
  • Daly, E. J., Martens, B. K., Barnett, D., Witt, J. C., & Olson, S. C. (2007). Varying intervention delivery in response to intervention: Confronting and resolving challenges with measurement, instruction, and intensity. School Psychology Review, 36, 562-581.
  • Haring, N.G., Lovitt, T.C., Eaton, M.D., & Hansen, C.L. (1978). The fourth R: Research in the classroom. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.
  • Hawkins, S. M., & Heflin, L. J. (2011). Increasing secondary teachers’ behavior-specific praise using a video self-modeling and visual performance feedback intervention. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions,13(2) 97–108.
  • Kern, L. & Clemens, N. H. (2007). Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior. Psychology in the Schools, 44, 65-75.

Motivating Students

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivators include fascination with the subject, a sense of its relevance to life and the world, a sense of accomplishment in mastering it, and a sense of calling to it.

Students who are intrinsically motivated might say things like the following.

  • “Literature interests me.”
  • “Learning math enables me to think clearly.”
  • “I feel good when I succeed in class.”

Advantages: Intrinsic motivation can be long-lasting and self-sustaining.  Efforts to build this kind of motivation are also typically efforts at promoting student learning.  Such efforts often focus on the subject rather than rewards or punishments.

Disadvantages: On the other hand, efforts at fostering intrinsic motivation can be slow to affect behavior and can require special and lengthy preparation.  Students are individuals, so a variety of approaches may be needed to motivate different students. It is often helpful to know what interests one’s students in order to connect these interests with the subject matter. This requires getting to know one’s students. Also, it helps if the instructor is interested in the subject to begin with!

Source: Matt DeLong and Dale Winter, Learning to Teaching and Teaching to Learn Mathematics: Resources for Professional Development, Mathematical Association of America, 2002, page 163.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivators include parental expectations, expectations of other trusted role models, earning potential of a course of study, and grades (which keep scholarships coming).

Students who are extrinsically motivated might say things like the following.

  • “I need a B- in statistics to get into business school.”
  • “If I flunk chemistry, I will lose my scholarship.”
  • “Our instructor will bring us donuts if we do well on today’s quiz.”

Advantages: Extrinsic motivators more readily produce behavior changes and typically involve relatively little effort or preparation. Also, efforts at applying extrinsic motivators often do not require extensive knowledge of individual students.

Disadvantages: On the other hand, extrinsic motivators can often distract students from learning the subject at hand. It can be challenging to devise appropriate rewards and punishments for student behaviors. Often, one needs to escalate the rewards and punishments over time to maintain a certain effect level. Also, extrinsic motivators typically do not work over the long term. Once the rewards or punishments are removed, students lose their motivation.

Source: Matt DeLong and Dale Winter, Learning to Teaching and Teaching to Learn Mathematics: Resources for Professional Development, Mathematical Association of America, 2002, page 163.

Furthermore, research indicates that extrinsic rewards can have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation. In one series of experiments, psychologist Edward Deci had two groups of college students play with a puzzle called Soma. One group of students was paid for each puzzle they solved; the other wasn’t. He found that the group that was paid to solve puzzles stopped solving puzzles as soon as the experiment—and the payment—ended. However, the group that wasn’t paid kept solving the puzzles even after the experiment was over. They had found the puzzles intrinsically interesting. Deci argued that the group that had been paid to solve puzzles might have found the puzzles intrinsically interesting as well, but the extrinsic, monetary reward had reduced their intrinsic interest.

Source: Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004, pages 32-33.

Effects of Motivation on Learning Styles

  • Deep learners respond well to the challenge of mastering a difficult and complex subject. These are intrinsically motivated students who are often a joy to teach!
  • Strategic learners are motivated primarily by rewards. They react well to competition and the opportunity to best others. They often make good grades but won’t engage deeply with a subject unless there is a clear reward for doing so. They are sometimes called “bulimic learners,” learning as much as they need to do well on a test or exam and then promptly forgetting the material once the assessment is over.Handle strategic learners by avoiding appeals to competition. Appeal to their intrinsic interest in the subject at hand. Design your assignments (tests, papers, projects, etc.) so that deep engagement with the subject is necessary for success on the assignments. Do so by requiring students to apply, synthesize, or evaluate material instead of merely comprehending or memorizing material.
  • Surface learners are often motivated by a desire to avoid failure. They typically avoid deep learning because it they see it as inherently risky behavior. They will often do what it takes to pass an exam or course, but they won’t choose to go beyond the minimum required for fear of failure.Handle surface learners by helping them gain confidence in their abilities to learn and perform. “Scaffold” course material and assignments by designing a series of activities or assignments that build on each other over time in complexity and challenge. Encourage these learners often and help them reflect on what they’ve learned and what they’ve accomplished.

Source: Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004, pages 40-41.

A Model of Intrinsic Motivation

James Middleton, Joan Littlefield, and Rich Lehrer have proposed the following model of intrinsic academic motivation.

  • First, given the opportunity to engage in a learning activity, a student determines if the activity is one that is known to be interesting.  If so, the student engages in the activity.
  • If not, then the student evaluates the activity on two factors—the stimulation (e.g. challenge, curiosity, fantasy) it provides and the personal control (e.g. free choice, not too difficult) it affords.
  • If the student perceives the activity as stimulating and controllable, then the student tentatively labels the activity as interesting and engages in it.  If either condition becomes insufficient, then the student disengages from the activity—unless some extrinsic motivator influences the student to continue.
  • If the activity is repeatedly deemed stimulating and controllable, then the student may deem the activity interesting.  Then the student will be more likely to engage in the activity in the future.
  • If over time activities that are deemed interesting provide little stimulation or control, then the student will remove the activity from his or her mental list of interesting activities.

The challenge, then, is to provide teaching and learning activities that are both stimulating and offer students a degree of personal control.

Source: James A. Middleton, “A Study of Intrinsic Motivation in the Mathematics Classroom: A Personal Constructs Approach,” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Vol. 26, No. 3, pages 255-257.

Strategies for Motivating Students

Following are some research-based strategies for motivating students to learn.

  • Become a role model for student interest. Deliver your presentations with energy and enthusiasm.  As a display of your motivation, your passion motivates your students. Make the course personal, showing why you are interested in the material.
  • Get to know your students. You will be able to better tailor your instruction to the students’ concerns and backgrounds, and your personal interest in them will inspire their personal loyalty to you. Display a strong interest in students’ learning and a faith in their abilities.
  • Use examples freely. Many students want to be shown why a concept or technique is useful before they want to study it further. Inform students about how your course prepares students for future opportunities.
  • Use a variety of student-active teaching activities. These activities directly engage students in the material and give them opportunities to achieve a level of mastery.
    • Teach by discovery.  Students find as satisfying as reasoning through a problem and discovering the underlying principle on their own.
    • Cooperative learning activities are particularly effective as they also provide positive social pressure.
  • Set realistic performance goals and help students achieve them by encouraging them to set their own reasonable goals. Design assignments that are appropriately challenging in view of the experience and aptitude of the class.
  • Place appropriate emphasis on testing and grading. Tests should be a means of showing what students have mastered, not what they have not. Avoid grading on the curve and give everyone the opportunity to achieve the highest standard and grades.
  • Be free with praise and constructive in criticism. Negative comments should pertain to particular performances, not the performer. Offer nonjudgmental feedback on students’ work, stress opportunities to improve, look for ways to stimulate advancement, and avoid dividing students into sheep and goats.
  • Give students as much control over their own education as possible. Let students choose paper and project topics that interest them. Assess them in a variety of ways (tests, papers, projects, presentations, etc.) to give students more control over how they show their understanding to you. Give students options for how these assignments are weighted.


  • Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004, pages 32-42.
  • Linda Nilson, Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, 2nd edition, Anker Publishing, 2003, pages 41-44.
  • Matt DeLong and Dale Winter, Learning to Teaching and Teaching to Learn Mathematics: Resources for Professional Development, Mathematical Association of America, 2002, pages 159-168.

Showing Students the Appeal of the Subject

When encouraging students to find your subject matter interesting, use cues to show students the appeal of the subject matter.


Examples of Cues

“I think that is really neat—I haven’t seen anything quite the same.”
“This next topic is something that we’ll use again and again.  It contains valuable ideas that we’ll use throughout the later sections of the course.”
“As you work through the next section, I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised how relevant it is.”
“As you read through, ask yourself what this section of work is hinting at as the next logical step.”
“We’ve used X in a lot of different ways.  If you thought you’d seen them all, just wait for the next assignment.”
“Who’s up for a challenge?  I think that you’ll find the next piece of work very interesting.”
“When you try this, you’ll find out whether you really understood yesterday’s lesson.”
“A lot of you have asked me about X.  Well, finally we’re going to find out why that’s so.”

Source: Matt DeLong and Dale Winter, Learning to Teaching and Teaching to Learn Mathematics: Resources for Professional Development, Mathematical Association of America, 2002, page 168.

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