From Elevate News | November 2020

How to Maintain Motivation in a COVID World

In November, Elevate released its report “A student perspective! A benchmark study of students' attitudes to getting back to school in a post lockdown environment”, which drew upon surveys and interviews with close to 3000 students across the UK in order to understand how COVID-19 and school closures have impacted students’ perspectives and attitudes towards the return to school.

One of the areas the report examined was students’ perceived levels of motivation. We all know that students’ motivation levels tend to vary across the year, peaking and troughing as the year progresses. Unsurprisingly, we found that the events of the last 9 months have amplified this experience for students, turning the peaks and troughs into something of a rollercoaster.


Unsurprisingly, students’ motivation levels decreased significantly during school closures, with 81% of students stating that they were less motivated during school closures, whilst only 7% of students identified as being motivated.

The good news is that motivation levels increased substantially with the return to school and the start of the new academic year, with 43% of students stating that they feel motivated. The bad news is that whilst these motivational levels are better than they were, they still represent lower than average motivational levels compared to those Elevate has benchmarked in previous years. At the start of the academic year in 2019, 65% of students identified themselves as being motivated for the start of the school year, so whilst current reports are trending upwards, motivation levels are still lower than where we would expect to see them.

What does this mean for schools?

We believe that there are 3 important ramifications for schools:

  1. A faster descent to the troughs: Since students are coming from a lower base motivation level, they risk hitting the bottom of their motivation valley or plateau faster than normal. We believe that schools will need to think about motivational interventions around December to January, as well as in March and April.
  1. Motivation is likely to be highly fragile: Not only are students coming from a lower motivational base, motivation is likely to be much more fragile. Again, motivational dips upon unanticipated set-backs are always likely to occur over the course of the year, but we believe that greater fragility will mean that dips are likely to be triggered by more minor set-backs, meaning they occur much more frequently. Similarly, as discussed in the previous newsletter on the risks involved in mocks we also believe that students are much more likely to perceive set-backs as being fatal or irreparable, which may to lead to permanent disengagement.
  1. Increased risks around a return to school closures: As they say, the best way to prepare for the future is to understand the past. 40% of students stated that motivation was the number one problem they faced during school closures, and similarly, it was the second most reported fear should schools close again. Although the government has reiterated its intent to keep schools open, our experience with COVID is that no scenario should be ruled out. If schools should close, those who manage to bake motivational strategies (such as those discussed below) into their digital classrooms will have the greatest capability to maintain student motivation levels.


What you can do to help keep your students motivated


When we think of motivation and the process for becoming motivated, we tend to think of it as being a highly personal process that is internalized by a student. For example, students need to spend the time thinking about goals, and evaluating what is important to them. This process of reflection and introspection allows them to identify a compelling goal which will keep them motivated across the course of the year. Most schools see their role in this process as providing students with the time and direction to set their goals through goal-setting programmes built into tutorial sessions, mentoring sessions or pastoral care lessons.

The provision of goal-setting structures like those described above are fantastic; however, it is only a first step. The second step or factor that needs to be included in a school’s thinking about motivation is motivational climate. Motivational climate refers to what a teacher does in the classroom, what they reward and how the students within the class interact, and has been shown in to have as much impact on a student as the internal motivation processes described above.

Motivational climate is important for 2 key reasons:

  • Impact on self-efficacy: What happens in the classroom influences how a student perceives their own ability levels. What is celebrated and rewarded in the classroom, and the types of tasks or activities a teacher focuses on, serve to increase or decrease a student’s self-efficacy. Decreased self-efficacy will lead students to pick avoidance goals; that is, goals that seek to minimize the risks of failure rather than maximizing a positive outcome. As the name would suggest, avoidance goals are associated with a range of negative states, namely: lower levels of motivation; decreased satisfaction; and impacted resilience.
  • Impact on belonging: Interestingly, research in the classroom, as well as sporting teams, shows that one of the biggest drivers for a student’s sense of self-efficacy was the degree to which they felt they belonged and were respected by their peers, teacher or coach. Indeed, Camille Farrington from the University of Chicago argues that a sense of belonging is actually the trait from which resilience and motivation are derived. Farrington argues that if a student feels they do not belong in an environment, they will take defensive action and disengage. In contrast, those students who feel they belong have a greater sense of safety to take risks and also greater resilience to deal with unforeseen setbacks.

In summary, what you focus on right now in the classroom has the capability to either increase or decrease students’ motivation. The question for teachers then is what tasks or activities have been shown to increase students’ self-efficacy and belonging, in order to guide students towards approach goals that will increase and maintain their motivation?

Tip 1: Increase students’ self-efficacy by focusing on short-term tasks

In our Student Elevation seminar, we recount to students a conversation we had with Michael Groom, one of the world’s leading mountain climbers about what it is like to climb Mount Everest. He said to us that the when you stand at the base, and look up at the 29,000 feet that make up Everest, the sense of overwhelm is so great you think of quitting there and then. He said the solution that climbers develop is to not obsess about the end destination, but rather focus on the task right in front of you. He said that if the only thing you think about is the summit, you begin to think about all the challenges, everything that can go wrong, the weather patterns, how daunting the process is, and hence trigger a series of negative emotions. In contrast, by focusing on the task right in front of you, whether that is navigating crevasses, or getting from base camp to camp one, you begin to focus on immediate tasks that are achievable and immediately within your control.

We have seen a number of the schools we work with put this principle to work in a way that was amazingly effective, but also ridiculously simple. In our Study Sensei seminar we discuss the three tasks that the top students prioritise: making notes; doing extra, wider or immersive reading; and practice exams. One of our clients decided to create a game to incentivise his students to focus on these three tasks. He got an A1 piece of cardboard onto which he drew two columns: in the first, he listed the names of all the students in his class, and the second column he left blank. He then put the cardboard poster up on the wall in the classroom.

Next lesson, the teacher announced the game to the class. He told them that each time a student handed in completed notes on a topic in their subject, submitted a summary of an extra reading, or completed a part of a practice exam (not necessarily a full exam), he would put a sticker up next to that person’s name. As you can imagine, the class received the news quite sceptically, viewing the game as something for junior school students as opposed to students doing their A-Levels. Nothing much happened for the first week or two. However, soon a few students started to submit work, and sure enough they were rewarded with a sticker next to their name. The few students that got the ball rolling then started to become a bit more competitive and their pace picked up as they handed in more work, and received more stars.

After the first set of mocks, the teacher was marking his students’ exam papers when he stopped and looked at the poster. The student with the most stars next to their name had come first. The student with the second most stars had come second, and so on. Students' marks were almost perfectly correlated to the number of stars they had on the poster.

Next class, after handing out students’ exam papers, the teacher pointed out the correlation he'd noticed. This was a powerful teaching moment as it provided clear evidence that the students who got the top marks in the class were the ones who had spent the most time on key tasks. From this point on, more students got involved in the game and it developed a life of its own.

We love this classroom innovation for 3 reasons:

  • Increased sense of control: Firstly, it channels Michael Groom’s story perfectly. It moved students from focusing away from what might be a daunting GCSE or A-Level goal to focusing them on immediate tasks which were in their control and could be completed immediately.
  • Increased sense of self-efficacy: As students completed their notes ahead of schedule and immersed themselves in the subject through extra-reading, they found that their understanding and knowledge within the subject grew, increasing their perceived levels of self-efficacy. Similarly, as they completed more and more practice exams students’ anxiety around mocks and final exams decreased.
  • Reinforced hard work over talent: Finally, this classroom innovation is a practical and vivid illustration of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset. The poster unwittingly provided the greatest evidence possible for students that what determined a student’s results wasn’t IQ or factors outside of a student’s control, but effort. It is exactly this type of belief that leads students to adopting mastery goals in the classroom and experiencing the type of intrinsic motivation, satisfaction and resilience that these goals provide for.

Tip 2: Increase belonging by using peer-to-peer collaboration

As noted above, Camille Farrington argues that developing a sense of belonging in the classroom is one of the key cornerstone activities for teachers seeking to increase students’ self-efficacy, motivation and resilience. Indeed, it is the first activity that EL Education focuses on when working to improve engagement in low-income schools across the US. EL Education partners students into crews who are responsible for activities ranging from peer-to-peer support, to performing collaborative group work together, to peer-to-peer marking and assessment (even to the extent of writing each other’s report cards).

Over the last 24 months we have seen schools utilizing peer-to-peer collaboration in a number of ways, although one of the most exciting is a technique called the Rule of 5 that we discuss and advocate in our Finishing Line seminar. The Rule of 5 requires that students be able to use information in 5 different ways, including a number of different ways which require peer-to-peer collaboration. Students are divided into groups of four. The teacher then breaks a topic apart, sharing learning points from the specifications amongst the students. Students must then perform the following tasks:

  • Rule 1: Make Notes. Students develop a set of notes for the topics they have been assigned (performed alone).
  • Rule 2: Teach. Students then come together in their group and are responsible for teaching their assigned topics to the rest of the group, as well as providing them with the notes and other materials.
  • Rule 3: Do an exam. Students must then complete a practice exam (performed alone).
  • Rule 4: Write an exam. Having undertaken an official exam, students must then combine their knowledge of the exam format, along with the content knowledge, to write an exam paper for their topic area. These exams are then shared out across the group and each student completes the exams put together by their team members.
  • Rule 5: Mark an exam. Finally, students are required to not only put together the exam questions, they also need to study the marking rubrics or guidelines in order to develop their own marking criteria, which are then applied by the group to mark each others’ papers. As part of the marking process, students need to also provide feedback to their team members explaining what they did well and where they can improve next time.

The Rule of 5 has 3 key advantages:

  • As per Tip 1, it focuses students on the tasks that will get them marks, and makes these tasks less confronting by adding an element of fun. As students perform these tasks, their sense of self-efficacy naturally grows.
  • Friendship, trust and respect are built through proximity and spending time together. The Rule of 5 provides a structured way to bring students together and form those bonds which engender belonging.
  • Through collaboration, students begin to understand and appreciate their strengths. Further, by being exposed to and correcting each other’s mistakes, students realise that everyone makes mistakes and that mistakes are part of the learning process, decreasing fear of failure and building resilience.

Elevate focuses on a number of these skills in our Study Sensei, Student Elevation and Finishing Line seminars. To find out how these seminars could help your students navigate their mocks, contact a Program Coordinator here or give us a call on 01865 989 495.

>> Next week: what students want. An in-depth look at the common requests students have asked for in order to better support them this year.

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