How Effective Teachers Motivate Their Students and Make Learning Fun

If you have been following my work, you know I spent 7 years a K-12 teacher and 7 years as a university professor, eventually becoming the dean of a school of education. As a teacher, I was passionate about helping students reach their academic potential and become productive citizens. As a professor and education dean, I was devoted to developing the next generation of teachers and education administrators. For the last two and a half years, I have been an education entrepreneur, launching an education company, Lynch Educational Consulting, which also manages the following web properties: The EdvocateThe Tech Edvocate, and Edupedia.

However, I often miss being in the classroom, and when I do, I usually channel this energy in an article, resource, or project that will benefit educators everywhere. This time I decided to create a series of case studies that are meant to help pre-service teachers get a glimpse into the problems and issues that they will encounter in the field. These case studies will also give them a chance to reflect on how they can use each scenario to inform their own practice. Let’s get started.

One of the hardest things for teachers to do is to make their students feel excited about learning. For some teachers, this comes naturally, and others must work at. To give you an idea of how effective teachers motivate students and make learning fun, read the case study below, entitled “Mr. Braxton’s Algebra Class.” Afterward, reflect on to the questions below, using your thoughts to shape your own practice.

  1. What are some of the things Mr. Braxton does to boost enthusiasm in his class?
  2. Mr. Braxton’s philosophy seems to be summed up in the following quote: “If you make it fun, make it personal, and let them know they are included, it will always stick with them.” Think about the subject area you intend to teach. What are three ways you could make the material fun and personal?
  3. Though Mr. Braxton’s class is fun and full of energy, he also has strict boundaries. Name two of these.

Mr. Braxton’s Algebra Class

Factions are fun, ladies and gentlemen! You’ve got to believe me! Don’t be scared of them!” Mr. Braxton exclaimed, as if he was asking the class to buy tickets to Disneyland. The class was reviewing for a comprehensive midterm exam.

“You always say that Mr. B,” JP told him, “but I gotta tell ya—this review is killer!”

“Stand up beside your desks. It’s time to do some math aerobics! Come on now! Parallel lines and count with natural numbers! Five, six, seven, eight . . . and one. . . .”

The class members extended both arms out in front of them and then above their heads, modeling parallel lines with their arms. They continued to count using natural numbers as they waited for his next command.

Mr. Braxton was an energetic and enthusiastic teacher with high test scores. Seventy-five percent of the students who took the required math courses from him went on to take the optional, advanced-level math courses. This was because of Mr. Braxton’s communal learning environment and zeal for what he taught.

“X squared!” he shouted as he threw his hands up in a U-shape. The entire class quickly mimicked his hand movements.

But Mr. Braxton’s class was not all fun and games. He had very high expectations of every student. He assigned homework every night to reinforce the day’s skills, he didn’t allow any talking or off-task work during class time, and if you showed up to class without your supplies, you would be in detention—there were no second chances and no exceptions!

“Oh, come on, Jamal!” he coaxed after class one day. “You have to take Advanced Math next semester! It will just prepare you that much more for college. Please? For me?”

“Well, okay,” Jamal smiled. “But only for you, Mr. B!”

The students were willing not only to work harder for Mr. Braxton, but also to take entire classes just to please him. He showed that he cared in everything he did, from his high expectations of their work to what was going on with their grandmother to college plans, and even if they would be at the ball game Friday night. And you’d better believe that he would be there, cheering on his students and encouraging them in every way he could.

“Okay, ladies and gentleman. The school talent show is coming up on Friday, and I want our class to be in it! I want to prove to the school that math can be fun! So, anyone have any suggestions?” Mr. Braxton asked after an afterschool homework session one day. His homework sessions were optional, but almost everyone in the class stayed late to do their homework.

“Math aerobics!” Shelia suggested. “We could teach the entire school!”

“Good idea, Sheila. I’m a little concerned that may be too advanced for the freshmen, though.”

“Let’s sing the quadratic equation song!” Lance exclaimed.

“Now we’re talking!” Mr. Braxton agreed. “We want it to be over-the-top exciting, though, to increase our chances of winning. So, what else could we do to really make this song pop?”

“Let’s get each class to sing it in rounds!” Rebecca suggested. “We could sing it the first time, and then get each group to join in.”

“I love how you think!”

“I know! Let’s write the formula on a gigantic roll of paper, and on the last round while everyone sings in unison, someone can dash out and unroll it across the entire stage for everyone to see,” suggested Paul.

“I love it! That’s what we’ll do,” Mr. Braxton laughed. “We’ll meet after school tomorrow to practice and design the banner.”

On Friday, the whole school watched as Mr. Braxton’s Advanced Math class took the stage to sing, “X equals negative b plus or minus square root, B squared minus 4ac divided by 2a,” to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. The crowd went wild as Kevin ran across the stage unraveling the banner. And they ended up taking third place in the talent show!

“How in the world do you think we won with all the ‘real’ talent that performed?” asked Kristy.

“If you make it fun, make it personal, and let them know they are included,” Mr. Braxton said, “it will always stick with them. You become memorable, and when it comes time to vote for the talent, the judges think of you. The same holds true for math, my dear. None of you will ever forget the quadratic equation.”

“And we’ll always remember you, too,” said Jared as he reached out to give his teacher a fist bump.

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