What motivates my students to learn?

I used Google Forms to survey 56 of my students (I know, it sounds like a statistics textbook question already!). I wanted to know what motivated them in my classroom. The survey was anonymous and I encouraged them to be as honest as possible.

The question: What motivates you to learn in the mathematics classroom?

The response: 1 – No motivation, 4 – Highly motivating


Any other comments? (here is a sample):

  • I would like to work in groups of my choice
  • Competition only puts stress on me
  • I find the mathematics interesting, but I feel immense pressure to get a good grade and get into college
  • I like working on my own with music playing
  • I need one on one help and lots of time to practice

My initial thoughts:

  • Clear patterns here are motivations of getting to college and getting a good job. I wish it was the same for ‘the mathematics covered’
  • Also clear is that students want lesson activities to be fun
  • Not so clear is the motivation of groupwork, individual work and working on practice problems. This just highlights the diverse nature of how my students learn and how to get the best results I need to cater for different learning styles. This is an art form, for sure.
  • Also interesting is that not all students appreciate competition. Even more interesting is how this graph changed with different classes. For example, for the first class that took this survey, there was an intense dislike of competition. This leveled out as the day progressed.


  • College and career is more of a motivator than the math. I would like this to level out somewhat; for the math to be its own motivator. I’m still working on this point.
  • My students are very different in terms of how they learn and what motivates them. Some appreciate individual work, some appreciate group work. In a math ed world where the group-work-is-the-only-way team is by far the loudest, I have to remember that this is not always the biggest learning engine for all of my students.

This process reminded me of the following TED talk on ‘The Power of Introverts’. An important idea to think about if we want to tailor education to the individual student:

2 thoughts on “What motivates my students to learn?

  1. hillby

    At two different schools, I saw two different attitudes. Both were motivated by the future, but in one school they saw what we learned as the steps toward that future. In the second school, the students only saw the grade as the steps toward that future, the learning was just between them and the grade. You can guess which school I wish I was still on the faculty.

    1. PumphreysMath Post author

      It’s a huge issue. I think the key between one situation and the other is teaching students how to ask good questions. Give them the skills to know what to ask and when and they can learn for themselves at every step.


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