Five Tips for Motivating Your Students to Study


My father used to tell a story about when he and his cousin were little boys and got a childhood disease for which they both had to take castor oil. I’ve never taken castor oil but I’ve heard say it’s a terrible thing to have to do! Well, I would not want to drink castor oil either and I don’t think anyone would, voluntarily.

Fortunately, my grandmother and her sister were very clever so they began arguing about how good their boys were about taking bad tasting medicine. Each of the sisters bragged about her son saying he was very brave and could take medicine that was awful with no complaint. The boys were listening to this and their desire to validate what their mother was saying was stronger than their desire to try to avoid the castor oil.

They were soon fighting to be the first to take the spoonful of castor oil!

Unfortunately, for many students, studying is comparable to having to take castor oil. I mean who wants to study when there are so many more exciting distractions like watching a soccer game, playing with the smart phone, listening to music or going for a ride. 

But in order to make it through school there is little recourse left but to study. So how can you motivate students to study? 

The underlying secret behind hesitancy to study is that when one is studying any subject whatsoever, if one does not understand the subject, it is very difficult to be motivated to study it.

Understanding peaks interest and with interest comes motivation.

As an EFL teacher for example I refused to learn the international phonetic symbols for universal sounds that could be made. In fact it seemed like such a complicated task that I avoided it like the plague and I would transliterate the words that needed to be learned. In fact one of my students recalls: 

 I remember Leona explaining the difference between pronouncing ‘b’ and ‘v’, and making faces and strange sounds. She didn’t stop doing it until the three of us pronounced them correctly.”

~Merilyn Rodriguez Murillo, agriculture/livestock teacher, Santa Clara High School, Costa Rica

Some years later when I took phonics for my M.Ed degree I had to bite the bullet to study and learn the phonetic symbols. Guess what? after studying them and learning about sounds in depth I became a believer and since then I’ve had dozens of students come for help at the Writing Center where I was working. They did not understand their phonics textbook or graphs. I always gave them a loose chart they could place in their book to move around with for all the activities so they didn’t have to search for the chart within the book. This made the task easier for them. 

I would say that a key for motivating students to study is a solid comprehension of the fundamentals of what they are learning. Students need a degree of empathy for the material they are required to study. Following are 5 tips on how to generate empathy for any given subject matter that students are required to study:

Students are competitive by nature and if you present them with challenges about the topic they need to study, they will hurry to the task. You can ask them to research interesting facts about the content they are about to study, for example. This can be done as a pre-study assignment to peak their curiosity. Offer a reward to the students who get the answers fastest. 

How does the subject relate to the students personally? How can it impact their lives? How can this subject impact their immediate environment or their future. Make it personal so they feel the subject is important and could affect them directly. It is very different reading about a flood in some country that you have never heard of than reading about how flood waters might be eroding the foundation of the home you live in. The affective domain always relates to students in a personal way rather than a cognitive fact finding way.

Assign study projects to pairs or small groups of students. This is somewhat like the blind leading the blind or misery loves company but the adage that “two heads are better than one” is true. Like the story of the blind men asked to describe an elephant. They each touched a different part of the elephant so each had a different interpretation. Well, if you put all the interpretations together you would have a pretty accurate description of the elephant. Deciphering a complex problem together is more effective than doing it alone. 

When you must perform, you will grumble but you will learn, and when you learn you will like what you hated before. Divide the content into sections and assign one student to present each section.

Students are often spoon fed the material, which is the passive way of learning. If students are responsible for presenting the material to the class their pride will kick in. They don’t want to make fools of themselves so they’ll be keen to understand the material in order to explain it to the rest of the class.

Students should guess about upcoming units of study by listing all the things they know about the topic; all the things they want to know, and after studying the topic, all they things they learned. Venn diagrams are good for this type of brainstorming. Students can make their own by overlapping two circles on a piece of paper or writing their guesses, questions and facts in three different columns. 

Finally, you can lead a horse to water but you can’ make him drink, so trying to get students motivated to study is next to impossible unless you can include them in the content in one way or another. Having a personal interest will always motivate them.



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