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Professional Development SeriesVolume 12

Motivating Middle School Students: The Critical Part of Lesson Planning in Mathematics

Alfred S. Posamentier, Ph.D
Dean, School of Education
The City College of The City University of New York

Inspiring students to learn is the cornerstone of successful teaching. A teacher's skill in engaging a class in its opening moments can set the tone for an entire lesson and contribute to its success. Regardless of the approach-whole class, small groups, or individuals-a key planning objective is to determine ways to draw students in at the outset. Teachers should strive to develop motivating activities that will not only introduce the lesson, but also hold students' attention throughout the class period.

Positive learning environments make the best use of students' attitudes, abilities, and experiences. Teachers can create a successful learning environment by crafting activities that appeal to students motivated in one of two ways: extrinsically or intrinsically.

Extrinsic motivation stimulates action in pursuit of tangible rewards or set goals. Sometimes extrinsic methods of motivation may work well. These methods include: grades, charts with personal goals, competition, contextualizing tasks that relate to students' experiences, economic rewards for good performance, peer acceptance of good performance, avoidance of "punishment" by performing well, and praise for good work (Guild and Garger, 1998). Extrinsic methods are effective for students in varying forms: they often demonstrate extrinsic goals in their desire to understand a topic or concept (task-related), to outperform others (egorelated), or to impress others (social-related).1

Intrinsic motivation-learning for its own sake-results from the internal drives already present in learners, such as the following:

  • curiosity
  • the learner's need to understand his or her immediate environment
  • a need to acquire a more complete understanding of a topic or subject
  • a need to improve one's position
  • a need to be entertained

This last drive may be affected by a teacher's classroom behavior, the content of material, or the style in which it is presented.

Sources of Motivation

Innate Curiosity

It is a natural human trait to seek out challenges that can be conquered by using existing skills and knowledge, resulting in a feeling of competence (Wolters, 2004). Often, a student's interest is stimulated when his or her curiosity is piqued. Teachers can whet students' curiosity by bringing, for example, an unusual item to class-a large ball to demonstrate a geometric principle or to explore Earth's properties.

1 The socially-related goal can apply to both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.