Lighting the Fire – Maximising pupils’ motivation to learn

Mr Godfrey (Deputy Head) shares some of the ways teachers at Downe House maximise their pupils’ motivation to learn.

29 April 2022

One trademark of teachers at Downe House is a love of their subject. Enthusiasm is an important means of motivating pupils since it is infectious. However, enthusiasm alone is not enough: a nuanced approach to classroom management is also needed to engage all pupils effectively.

We are fortunate to have a fully committed, highly professional and experienced team of teachers at Downe, and the appetite to learn from each other is strong. At a busy school it can be hard to find the time to share best practice – so we ensure that time is set aside for this purpose.

During one of our recent regular mid-week training sessions for all staff, four teachers – Mrs Barnard (History and Politics), Ms Thabet (Maths), Dr Hosker (Italian) and Dr Atherton (English) – shared some of the strategies they adopt to sustain high levels of motivation in their lessons. Here are just some of their ideas…

Set high expectations

Our pupils respond well when their teachers set high standards in terms of classroom routines and completion of work. They thrive in a secure learning environment in which they know their work will be checked fairly and rigorously.

Let them know you care!

Effort levels peak when pupils know their teacher really cares about them. But – be warned! – caring is not necessarily fluffy. As Ms Thabet says: “When I care about you…poor you!” This is because she will be relentless! She will always follow things up, and she will be uncompromising with her rules and standards: “That’s my ‘brand’ of caring, and my pupils recognise it.”

Develop a good rapport

Everyone appreciates being noticed and appreciated. A simple “How was your weekend?” from the teacher, or noting an achievement in an extra-curricular activity, can be very affirming and motivating for any pupil.

Be invested in your feedback

Pupils need to feel that their teachers are invested in them. Individually tailored and detailed verbal praise or constructive criticism can convey this, as can prompt feedback about a task (always appreciated!).

Make it real

Pupils often engage best with a topic if they can relate it to the real world. In politics, for example, it can be very powerful when pupils bring their ideas and reactions to current events into classroom discussions. Similarly, sharing aspects of Italian culture can hook them into learning related vocabulary and grammar more effectively. As Dr Hosker advises: “Know your pupils and tap into their preferences.”

Give pace to all lessons

All subjects have at least some lengthy topics which can be intimidating. Breaking them into manageable chunks, with regular review, assessment and praise, is an effective way to make progress. Some topics are inevitably less engaging than others: but if the teacher is seen to be looking forward to teaching something ‘boring’, it ceases to be boring!

Active is better than passive

Our pupils prefer to be active participants rather than passive observers. It is important to give them time to think and to interact with each other during lessons. A variety of tactics within the same lesson – for example, an interactive start, then some quiet thinking time, followed by an explanation or exposition from the teacher – can be a particularly good tactic.

Learning is a two-way process

We must ‘model’ learning to our pupils: we can learn from them. It is affirming for a pupil when they bring their own knowledge or experience into the classroom and share it with their teacher and fellow pupils. This could be something they have seen in the news or read in their spare time. As Mrs Barnard says: “When this happens, let them know that you are enjoying learning with them.”

Clarity is important

When introducing new concepts, it is important to take sufficient time to ensure that no-one falls behind. If necessary, take more time than you had planned. Our pupils appreciate clear explanations and the time to practice and check their own understanding. This is key to building confidence and independence. Some will learn faster than others, so it is important to have both reinforcement and extension activities available to enable pupils to work at their own pace before moving on to new topics.

Tech is great!

Everything in moderation, but there is so much software that can provide variety, texture and differentiation to the learning process. Multiple choice questions on Kahoot are very popular, and OneNote and other platforms are great for collaboration between pupils and other interactive learning methods.

Mistakes are fine and important

It is essential for pupils to engage with their own mistakes – to feel OK about making them, and to be able to recognise them and work through them. It can be highly effective for pupils to practice and to check their own answers with a sheet of solutions. They need to know they can solve problems without their teacher. It can take effort working through mistakes, but the rewards and confidence from getting there in the end are powerful for lifelong learning.

My thanks to our teachers quoted in this article, and I hope some of their recommendations are useful to other teachers and pupils out there.

Mattew Godfrey smiles at camera


Mr Matt Godfrey

Read more of our Deputy Head's blog posts

Now accepting more Day Pupils for September 2025! Learn more at our Open Event on Thursday 9 May.
Back to top