The upcoming school year will be filled with uncertainty, but the need to keep students engaged while working from home feels like a sure thing. Fortunately, there is a science of motivation.

The sudden, unplanned move to distance learning during spring 2020 drove a wedge into the middle of the school year—disrupting academic schedules, putting an end to extracurriculars, and undercutting the assessment and academic feedback cycles in most schools. Student motivation, predictably, foundered.

As one of our students put it, online school “is just like in-person school but with all the fun bits removed.” Without the ambient social interactions that are such a rich part of a regular day at school, and without in-person guidance from teachers, coaches, and counselors, many of the key motivational drivers were suddenly gone.

In most K–12 schools, there were no fully formed distance-learning alternatives waiting in the wings. Indeed, glaring holes and inequities were exposed in the first days and weeks of distance learning: families with sporadic or no connection to Wi-Fi; students who lacked a calm place to study; siblings who needed to chip in to take care of brothers and sisters, or needed to contribute money by getting a job.

In short order, the move to online learning also laid bare some of the instructional flaws in our traditional structures of accountability, evaluation, and standardized testing.

Fortunately there is a science of motivation, and we need to design it into the very fiber of our virtual courses. There is a pressing need to do so now in order to help keep students engaged through the challenges of distance learning, and to avoid exacerbating the previously existing gaps in learning opportunities born of systemic inequities.

You may have heard of the major theories of motivation that researchers discuss, like self-determination theory and expectancy-value-cost theory. We will discuss these in a second article coming soon. For now, we think that learning mindsets—students’ beliefs about themselves, their potential, and the learning context—are a better starting point that we can understand and implement relatively quickly in classrooms. Once we get proficient at learning mindsets, then we can go take the next step toward an understanding of the deeper structure of motivation, and how it can be applied to create fundamental structural reform in schools.

Researchers talk about three learning mindsets: sense of belonging, purpose and relevance, and growth mindset. If we want to design for intrinsic motivation, this is where we need to start. Some of these learning mindsets may be familiar to you, but they are often misunderstood and misapplied in schools.


Make students feel heard: Include activities, topics, and examples that students identify with so they feel it’s OK to bring their authentic self to class each day. Work hard at eliminating identity threat. Every child deserves to feel seen, listened to, and respected, and that their unique story is a part of the larger story of the class.

For example, you can create a ritual for starting your online class in which every child speaks and every child hears their name spoken by somebody else; incorporate fishbowl discussions online and encourage students to “speak from the I perspective”; co-create class rules and norms with your students and post them on the first page of each unit on your learning management system (LMS), and revisit and renew the norms periodically.

Reduce barriers to connecting online: Let students know that there is an easy way to communicate with you outside of class—you can manage expectations by telling them how quickly you’ll respond—and that they are welcome to do so. While setting clear expectations for the whole class, it’s also important to be creative and proactive in identifying and finding solutions to challenges—emotional or academic—that individual students are facing. For example, you can set up one-on-one phone or video calls with each child on a rotating basis, or offer them the ability to text or call you directly.

Remind yourself that social time is as important as academic time: If you are teaching online, deliberately use some of your precious time for social connection. For example, begin your class time with a social ritual: try a short “mental stretch” break; offer some monitored hangout time before class starts; or create small groups that meet socially asynchronously. This isn’t wasted class time—it’s an investment to help keep them motivated and present for the long haul.


Work hard to articulate purpose: Teachers often underestimate the importance of purpose and relevance in building motivation, and overestimate how good a job they are doing making the purpose clear. Deliberately and regularly state the purpose of assignments and activities—this is especially important when you are distanced from your students.

Use online surveys to solicit—and leverage—student interests: Ask students about their interests and passions, and design activities that target things that your students genuinely find personally relevant. It’s not always necessary to make the activities academic: During distance learning, you should cut down some of your traditional content in order to forge deep connections—the goal is to boost students’ long term buy-in for the year.

Build connections to real life: Research suggests that students’ motivation toward education is improved when they take the time to link their learning to their existing interests—or to the world around them.

Try having students complete this activity, which asks students to connect recent academic insights to their interests, by interviewing each other, perhaps over Zoom.

Give students choice: Adding well-chosen, constrained elements of choice in topic or medium are great options to help boost motivation during distance learning—students feel empowered while also learning how to improve their ability to choose. But be mindful that too much choice creates decision fatigue. Example activities: Choose from one of these four essay prompts; select a renowned leader that meets a set of criteria to study for your project; produce your work in the form of a podcast, children’s book, 2- to 3-minute video, art installation, or paper.


Explain how learning works: Begin by talking to your students. Tell them that studying is hard, but it gets easier over time when you begin to use effective study strategies. Teach them about neuroplasticity—that effortful practice over time helps rewire their brains.

Give them effective study strategies: Students should favor study strategies like articulating key concepts in their own words, active retrieval, and spaced practice over rereading and highlighting—and you should build in time to let them practice and refine those strategies. During distance learning it is especially important to be deliberate about this because students are on their own more often and need strategies for self-regulation.

Help them get unstuck: Be concrete with students about the fact that they will periodically get stuck, so they’ll need tactics to get over the hump. Have you created a class climate where kids feel comfortable asking peers for help—or considered setting up small study groups to facilitate better communication? Have you given your students easy ways to contact you during business hours, and even urged them to do so when they’re stuck? Have you created a useful, easily accessed list of class resources in your LMS?

Use tech to create a low-stakes environment: Create low-stakes quizzes in your LMS, or use tech tools like Pear Deck, Quizlet Live, and Poll Everywhere to support frequent but gradeless retrieval practice and formative assessments. Reposition these “quizzes” as part of continuous learning, and help students see them as useful tools to get a sense of where they are, how well their study strategies are working, and what they need to do next. Finally, don’t confuse low-stakes with easy; students work harder and learn more deeply when they are challenged. Build time for getting things wrong and learning from those mistakes into every class.

Alter your grading systems and structures: Despite the conventional wisdom in education, grades don’t motivate students to do their best work, nor do they lead to better learning or performance.

What better time than now to adjust your grading structure to reward growth, development, and improvement? Even if summative assessments are beyond your control, consider adjusting your mid-unit grading by awarding points and grades based on student work related to continuous improvement. This not only helps the struggling learners, but also pushes the top achievers to show that they are putting in the effort needed to demonstrate clear improvement in their skill levels.

Be constantly ready to adjust your teaching: Because it’s hard to “read the room” and determine what your students know in a virtual classroom, use your formative assessments to continually adjust your own teaching. This is a great way to model the growth mindset behaviors that you’d like your students to adopt.

Create a digital record of competence: Motivation can be boosted when students notice their growing competence. Create short activities to promote this rather than leaving it to chance—for example, bring back a piece of older work and do a then-and-now comparison, or create a simple online portfolio that can be regularly updated and revisited. Be sure that students link their competence to hard work and the right strategies, not to innate ability.