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3 Strategies to Build Motivation in Students

Ways to stay motivated for the long haul.

Key points

  • Approaching learning from a place of “I’ll keep trying” impacts outlook and motivation.
  • Based on the 360 thinking model, students begin a project or assignment by visualizing what the final product will look like.
  • Having goal-oriented thoughts helps students stay on track through their academic journeys.
Alena Darmel/ Pexels
Source: Alena Darmel/ Pexels

Academic journeys can feel like a long haul. Some students like it more than others. Given the online learning experiences during the pandemic, along with other stressors that continue to impact our lives, students have experienced a shift in how they learn. Many of my clients have shared their lack of motivation for school and their tendency to procrastinate with assignments. There are some great, evidence-based strategies that may help build some motivation for these students. Here are three that may help get you started:

1. Cultivate mastery-oriented self-talk.

In psychology research, there is a theory called self-attribution, which explores the differences between a helpless orientation (intelligence is unchangeable, this is the way I am) and an incremental/ mastery orientation (effort expanded). Learning from a place of “Well, I am just really bad at this” creates a sense of helplessness and breaks down motivation. In comparison, approaching learning from a place of “I’ll keep trying” has an impact on outlook and motivation.

What are some real-world ramifications of these self-attributions? Research shows that those students that are taught incremental intelligence (in other words, the brain is plastic, and we can change our abilities) tend to show more motivation and improvement in grades. Caregivers and teachers can help by focusing on how much effort the child has put in and exploring what self-talk they can engage in (“I worked hard, and my effort paid off” versus “I did well because I am so smart”). When we simply focus on the idea “I am so smart,” the message the child may learn if they do not succeed is, “Well, I did not do as well here, so I must be stupid.” In other words, how we praise others matters as it can impact how they view themselves and their core identities.

2. The 360 Thinking

The “360 Thinking executive function model and program,” developed by Kristen Jacobsen and Sarah Ward, helps teach the “how” skills that many students may lack when approaching tasks. Based on this model, students begin a project or assignment by making a plan of what the final product will look like visually. That is, students imagine looking into a crystal ball to see the “future” and to describe in detail how the final project will look, sound, and feel.

Multisensory learning has been shown to be of great value in solidifying learning and information-processing abilities, so why not practice these skills in our minds? Students are also asked how they would feel when their project is accomplished to build further motivation for this. These building blocks lead students to draw their “vision” and work backward by breaking down steps to achieve this vision. Students continue to use visualization here, such as having coloured aids to represent “done” (red), “do” (green), and “get ready” (yellow).

To stay motivated and on-task, students ask themselves three goal-oriented planning questions:

  1. “What will it look like when I am done?”
  2. “What steps do I need to take to match my done image?”
  3. “What materials will I need?”

3. Connect back to values to build intrinsic motivation.

Research tells us that building motivation helps to have specific values and goals in mind. Having goal-oriented thoughts helps us stay on track and ask ourselves, “Where do I want to go?” and “What is important to me?”

While sometimes having some extrinsic rewards (e.g., treating ourselves to a dessert or a movie after completing our tasks) can be of help, it is important to foster motivation from within. This may be done through the exploration of what matters and bringing it back to taking concrete steps toward this direction. Caregivers and teachers can provide some visuals and examples of values that children and youth can reflect on to help guide them back to what is important and build specific goals that help work toward these values.

As Russ Harris puts it, “Waiting until you ‘feel’ like doing something is like putting the cart before the horse. Don’t rely on feelings. Rely on values. Let them be your motivation.”


Katz, M. (2016). 360 Thinking: An Executive Function Model and Program. Promising Practices.

Ward, S. & Jacobsen, K. (2014). A Clinical Model for Developing Executive Function Skills in Perspectives on Language Learning and Education. American Speech Language-Hearing Association, 21, 72- 84.