Secrets to Ramping up Student Effort:

The 10 Step Checklist Every Teacher Should Memorize.

Brain based

Over the years, student effort has been called many things. Some call it “motivation” and others call it “work ethic.” But no matter what you call it, students will never rise to their full potential without a strong effort. Here is what research tells us and how you can get the most out of your students. First…

The Research

Here is what research tells us about student effort. Effort can be internally generated (habits of mind, content knowledge, muscle memory, skills and intrinsic motivation) or it can be extrinsic (peers, novelty, rewards, etc.) There are three primary sources of effort and the first two sources are internal.

The first “internal” source of effort is capacity and competence. “Do students have the cognitive capacity to do the task required?” For example, when students lack the reasoning skills, focusing skills, mindset, positive beliefs or memory skills required to do the task, they will likely back off and not try. Why? Some think, “Better to not try and fail, than to try and look stupid.”

The second “internal” source is the student’s current emotional, physical and psychological state. When students feel tired, sick, angry, sleepy or bad things are happening at home, they tend to put out less effort. This connects with the “Cognitive Load Theory” which says that we can use up much needed school-related “workspace” in our brain with other, more essential (yet unrelated) tasks, such as survival.

The third source of student effort is context, an external motivation. In the moment, we can be psyched up, comforted, challenged, reassured or a dozen other states depending on the circumstances. If a fire breaks out, we put out the effort to react quickly! In short, effort or motivation is typically quite “situational” for both younger and more mature students who have not yet developed a ferocious “inner drive.” So, instead of hoping your kids will work hard, here’s what you can do to make it happen.

Practical Applications

Here are 10 things you can use to build student effort. Since students are unique, none of these are necessarily more important than another. Do a quick mental inventory on what you use and reinforce often in class. Once you come up with your “effort plan” (using the 10 steps below) the work begins for you to make it happen. You’ll want to implement your plan thoughtfully and over time. Once it has become automatic for you, student effort is consistently high.


  • When you care about your students and show empathy for their problems, they usually respond.
  • Ask students about their day, their family and their interests.
  • Be willing to just listen and empathize.


  • The quantity, quality, type, source and context are all important.
  • Give more positives than negatives and be specific enough to focus on effort, strategy or attitude.


  • Give students something they can accomplish in thirty seconds to five minutes. This helps those who are impulsive and want immediate results. It builds a success mindset.


  • Plan class work that allows students to compete. Peer influence is strong, as well as the desire for status.


  • This means, “How students do depends on how other students do.” It raises everyone’s effort level.
  • Students like friends or peers, and like doing things with them.

Challenge Level

  • For many students, the challenge level is too low or too high and they back off.
  • Give students some leeway and help frame the challenge so they take it on with gusto.

Build cognitive skills

  • Memory skills, problem-solving or study skills are a good start.

Rewards should be obvious.

  • The best rewards for K-5 students are: time with teacher, being first in line, extra fun, doing a classroom job they like, time on a special chair, books or manipulatives.
  • For secondary level, rewards can be raises in classroom status, privileges (like being first or only to do something), credits, homework passes or extra resources (internet, etc.).

Novelty is powerful because students get bored easily.

  • Change the timeline, the social conditions, the location or roles.
  • Change the time of the day, the way you measure progress or the rewards.
  • When things get stale, change something!

Choice can be good.

  • Choice allows students to modulate any of the factors above, as long as the choices are relevant to them.
  • Remember to “sell the choice” by bringing attention to it and the benefits of having it.

MOST IMPORTANT: To get the most out of the above, be purposeful about each. Do not implement these in a scattered or random fashion; you’ll get very little return on your time. Choose thoughtful mastery over “instant or quick fixes.” Pick one and implement it 3-4 times a week until you feel it’s automatic. It usually takes about a month to make this happen. Then, add another strategy. Tie the small efforts to the student’s life goals.

Once students set HUGE goals for themselves (e.g. “I want to become a master electrician” or “I’m going to start a social media company”) then it’s up to you to consistently make the classroom connections between what students do in class and how that helps them reach their goals. If you don’t do that, kids won’t make the connections. When YOU make the connections, effort goes up and you’ll build intrinsic motivation.

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