It’s my observation that the teacher is the ingredient that makes motivational projects work or not work. Can the teacher “sell” the idea? Many motivational ideas that we use in our first-world schools are not such a significant treat that students will not have the choice of “it’s not worth the effort so I don’t think I’ll try”. (And it is usually those students we are trying to motivate.) If a teacher is depending on the goal alone to motivate students it will tend towards bribery. Here are a few guidelines that govern how I look at motivational ideas.
- Is the goal attainable for all? Goals should stretch us a little but if it does not feel attainable it will demotivate rather than motivate. How can the goal be made attainable for all students?
- Does the project pit the good student against the poor student; or do they each have an equal footing? I do not like showcasing one student’s high scores against another student’s low scores. (I don’t like star charts showing the grades of tests because of this.)
- The reward should be treated as an affirmation of a job well done instead of “if you do this, you will get this.”
- I like to use group motivational projects instead of personal ones. With this idea the students are working for something as a group and everyone can contribute. Those not capable of contributing much are still motivated with the group.
- How the teacher “sells” the idea goes a long way towards making the motivation work. If one is expecting that a motivational technique will solve a problem they will end up being frustrated. Working toward a goal can help a teacher work with a problem but it will not solve the problem on its own.
With all that being said, here are a few of my favorite motivational projects.
- At the end of every day, students with no marks beside their names get a small piece of candy at dismissal. The marks are for issues such as talking without permission, out of seat without permission, etc. It is a way we celebrate a good day.
- About mid-term when I start to get frustrated with some bad habits that need shaping up, I’ll get out my marble jar. We’ll discuss the habits that need working on (last year one of them was keeping things on our desks instead of the floor, putting names on papers, neat work, etc.). I have a fishbowl filled with several hundred marbles, an empty jar, and a small cup or dish. Each day I put a certain amount of marbles into the dish from the fishbowl. (This number depends on the size of my class and how well I expect them to perform the needed task-often 1.5 or 2 per person in the class.) During the day, I take out a marble each time I see something “wrong”. (Things on the floor if we were working against that, etc.) And yes, sometimes one student will make most of the marbles leave the dish. At the end of the day any marbles in the dish go into the empty jar. The goal is to move all the marbles from the fish bowl into the empty jar. When the fish bowl is empty we celebrate with a special activity. These activities are things that will happen during the year anyway such as dress up day and show & tell. However, the students enjoy earning the right to do them. Sometimes we will work on things that will add bonus marbles to the jar such as turning in neat papers or getting all the facts correct on a math practice sheet. It can take as long as six weeks to fill our jar so sometimes we will work on one habit for a week and change it the next week if something else starts bugging me. The bonus marbles may change daily. I like using this idea because it gives me a positive way to deal with little things that I can tend to nag about. I can also somewhat control how fast the jar fills by assigning bonus marbles as needed.
- A favorite reading motivator that I enjoyed years ago was a book worm that wound its way from the library, out into the basement hall, up the stairs, around the upstairs hall, and made its way back into the library and wondered across the ceiling. For every library book that students read (on or above their level) they filled out a circle with the title and their name and posted it on the wall. It wasn’t a contest, just a whole school effort to grow the worm and see where it went next.
- This year I am having a problem with soft-spoken students who do not read loud enough to be heard. So some days, I have stood in the back of the room and if they read loud enough for me to clearly hear them, I’ve given them a small treat. This one could easily become bribery if not approached carefully. I try to use the reward as an affirmation of a word well read instead of “read loud enough and you’ll get a Skittle”.
- Sincere words of praise and affirmation are great motivators.