10 Ways to Motivate Struggling Learners

Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success 
By Barbara R. Blackburn
(Routledge/Eye on Education, 2016 – Learn more)

bloom-120bReviewed by Karen Bloom

As a teacher, student, educational consultant, professor, speaker, and writer in the field of education, Barbara R. Blackburn speaks from a wealth of knowledge and experience. This professional wisdom shines through the pages of her new book, Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success.

motivating struggling learners von stadenDr. Blackburn begins by defining extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and then shares with her readers a brilliant organizer that allows readers to find a specific strategy, listed by chapter, that they are looking for. She also lists different issues that a learner might be struggling with and offers us advice about what to do in that situation.

At the end of each chapter we find a short concluding paragraph and a highlighted box entitled “Points to Ponder” where Blackburn gives us sentence starters (such as “I’d like to try…” and “I need…”) to summarize and solidify the information that we learned by reading the chapter.

Though some of the suggestions are obvious, Blackburn makes them clear and doable by offering specific teacher actions and strategies to make them achievable. For example, when building relationships with students, have high expectations, create a positive atmosphere, and be a good listener. In the praise and positive feedback chapter, we see specific examples of encouragement and praise to try with students.

A focus on ownership and empowerment

Giving students ownership and helping them feel empowered greatly increases their motivation. Some of the book’s fabulous techniques for self-reflection are simple exit slips, reworking tests, and goal setting/review. The chapter on growth mindset vs. fixed mindset offers six strategies for developing the growth mindset in your classroom:

  1. build a learning-oriented mindset,
  2. focus on process as well as product,
  3. emphasize mastery and learning,
  4. reinforce effort,
  5. decrease learned helplessness, and
  6. provide multiple opportunities for success.

An “effective effort” rubric helps students self-reflect on whether they are showing a fixed mindset, mixed mindset, or growth mindset. I look forward to trying this with my seventh graders very soon.

Specific actions for communicating high expectations include some instructional recommendations like clearly communicating those expectations and using appropriate leveled materials. Blackburn includes two fabulous rubrics for cooperative learning – one simpler than the other. They both seem easy to understand and adapt for use in our own classrooms.


Engagement and motivation

The heart of the book, the chapter on engagement, clearly explains what an engaging and motivating classroom looks like. Blackburn lists six principles (in the acronym ENGAGE) to engage struggling students: (1) excite the brain, (2) nudge with uncertainty, (3) grow from strengths, (4) activate understanding, (5) group for collaboration, and (6) elicit involvement. Throughout the chapter each of these is explained thoroughly, and many examples of ways to do each of these is described to the reader.

The last three chapters, about scaffolding for success, resilience, and diverse groups of students, all continue to offer fantastic ideas and suggestions for increasing the motivation of students in our classrooms.

I highly recommend this book for educators looking to improve the level of engagement of the students in their classes. Even if you try only one or two of the tips or techniques offered by Dr. Blackburn in this book, your students will benefit and your teaching practice will be positively affected.


Karen Bloom is a life-long learner and teacher. She currently teaches math at Piedmont Middle School in Piedmont, California, where she co-advises Safe Space Club and Safe School Ambassadors and a lunch time Chill Zone, and is also a part time math coach . Her passion is for getting to know her students and colleagues as people and then helping them get from where they are to where they want to be.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

15 Responses

  1. Dr. Pete POst says:

    Thank you for sharing Karen – as a professor of special education at Trinity Christian College working with pre-service teachers I can’t emphasize motivation enough. Currently I have a group of 14 Trinity students that are taking a course in low incidence disabilities with me that meets at Elim Christian School – a facility dedicated to students with special needs. For the last 20 minutes of each class they get their own Elim student to tutor. At first the Elim teachers send along materials but eventually my students get to take over and “do their own thing.”
    I always get this started by requiring one of my favorite activities that I used in 30 years of teaching high school students with special needs. I have them write a letter together to various minor league sports teams or personalities of their choosing. Just yesterday, in response to one of these letters, we got a visit from the mascot of the Joliet Slammers – and the student was very excited to receive various “goodies” from the team. My experience has been that once one student has received a response such as this – the others are motivated to give it their best shot as well. They key might be to actually see results of an effort.
    So, for next week, I will also direct my students to this website and ask them to post an activity that they have found to be particularly motivating as they also prepare to move into classroom of their very own. Thank YOU for providing this motivation.
    Dr. Pete Post

  2. Karen Bloom says:

    Excellent, Dr. Post, I look forward to seeing what your students share with us.

  3. Natalia Barajas says:

    Hello Karen,
    I am one of Dr. Post’s students and I absolutely love the idea of an effective effort rubric. It is a great way for students to see where they should be and where they might be falling.
    What I have found to be particularly motivating is to create an activity that will cater to what the student really enjoys. If the activity or lesson is on a subject that the student likes or it involves something that they like, then it will motivate them to do the work or at least hold their attention. I think that any activity can be found to be motivating as long as it is designed with a specific student(s) in mind.

  4. Erica Barragan says:

    Hi Karen,
    I am also one of Dr. Post’s students and I agree with your all strategies for motivating struggling learners. I specifically like how a teacher must build a trusting relationship with the student to help their motivation in class.
    Going off of that strategy I also found that motivating a student must first start with the classroom environment. This means creating a non-threatening environment where the student feels safe and comfortable. This includes building a relationship between teacher and students and students with the other students. Another way to make the classroom environment motivating for the student is by changing the scenery. Sitting in a desk in rows all day every day can get dull and boring. Instead, create lessons that involve students moving around and interacting with each other. Add stations, go outside, or change the seating arrangements for the day. Any of these things will create an engaging and motivating environment for the student.
    Thanks for the helpful strategies!

  5. Josh PIeper says:

    I am also a student of Dr. Post and would have to agree that motivation is a huge part of learner’s success. Forming a positive and trusting relationship between the teacher and students is key to doing this and going off of this idea I think that forming this relationship can help the teacher and student to create a self motivating environment. If the student and teacher can work together to set personal goals and a path to achieve these goals I believe this could help the student to find that motivation on their own. These goals would be both beneficial and appealing to the student which hopefully would spark the drive it takes to achieve these goals. I think teaching the student to self motivate is important because they are not always gonna have somebody there to motivate them. So teaching them to do this on their own would promote independence and self advocacy.

  6. Ryan Tubbs says:

    I think one of the most effective ways of motivating students is complimenting them when they have had a good day or even just a good class. Your worst of students will have good days, and when they do let them know that you recognize it! This positive interaction with their teacher when they have done a good job will encourage the good behavior in the future.

  7. Lindsey Walker says:

    Hi Karen,
    In addition to the others, I am also a student in Dr. Post’s class. I absolutely love all of the different ways to motivate struggling learners. These will definitely help me when we tutor our students with different disabilities. Often times, these students can become discouraged when they encounter a difficult problem in their work. They want to give up and sometimes depend on their learned helplessness as a result. These motivational techniques will help to decrease the use and result of the learned helplessness. One thing that really stood out to me was the Cooperative Learning Rubric. I plan on trying this rubric when I work with a small group because they do not always work well together or get along. I like the idea that the students can self-reflect on their work. When the student understands the consequences for his or her behavior and the teacher praises the student for properly working well with others, it will definitely increase the student’s motivation. If I am working with multiple students and one is receiving encouragement, the others could look to their rubric to increase their behavior because they were motivated to want the teacher to be proud of them too. Thank you for your insight and providing these wonderful motivational strategies!

  8. Tori Burden says:

    This book sounds like a great resource and very appropriate for middle schoolers! For adolescents, it is important that they start taking initiative in their education, so I thought the sections on ownership and empowerment are especially important. My favorite idea was the ENGAGE acronym, because it would work wonderfully to make sure your classroom strategies pique student interest. One of the best things I think a teacher can do is to engage students in current information and issues while connecting them to the content. You could integrate current events with the acronym by exciting the brain, nudging uncertainty, and using collaborative groups while talking about current events.

    Keep up the great work!
    Tori Burden

  9. Christianna Vande Kamp says:

    Hello, Karen,

    I am a student in Dr. Post’s class at Trinity Christian College. I want to start off by saying that I admire your blog and the ideas you’ve offered exploring ways to motivate struggling learners, specifically, the six principles of the ENGAGE acronym. I hope to make the heart of this motivating classroom strategy the heart of my teaching approach. My dream is to excite my students, nudge them when they are feeling uncertain and build them up, grow them in their strengths, activate their understanding, and encourage them in their group work and collaboration skills. I would love to read more of this chapter and look at the examples of how to accomplish these principles with students.

    At the root of the ENGAGE model, I believe there needs to start a solid, trusting relationship between us as teachers and our students. They need to know that they can depend on us and that we truly want them to succeed. One on one meetings can be had where teachers seek to get to know their students beyond what they may show them in the classroom. It would give them a chance to ask me any questions they have or tell me something that they may not want to share in a larger class setting. I can speak to them on a more personal level and provide further explanations. Not only do we need to invest in our students when we are one on one, but we need to seek to make ourselves always available to them and open for conversation in our day to day interactions. This will give me the opportunity to reflect with my students on their work in my classroom and on their growth and goals as well!

    Thank you for your wonderful, applicable insights!

  10. Celeste Ayala says:

    Hello Karen!

    I am also a student in Dr. Post’s class from Trinity Christian College. A book like this is a wonderful resource for teachers. Nowadays, there are so many alternatives competing for students’ attention. Motivating students to stay focus and perform well is increasingly difficult. These motivational methods can result in an increasing desire to work hard. I appreciate how you said that each suggestion offers explicit actions and provides achievable strategies. Teachers then can easily adapt it into their our classrooms or home.

    I really appreciated your insights, thank you!


  11. Sam Bell says:

    Dear Karen,
    I am one of Dr. Post’s students. I really enjoy this blog. I particularly enjoyed the Cooperative Learning Rubric. I think that it can be very helpful to show students what working together looks like. Plus it puts more responsibility on them. Students almost always want to be independent, and this is a great way to motivate them, help them, and allow for certain independence.

    Thank you for sharing your great ideas,

  12. Thomas Murphy says:

    Hi Karen,
    I am one of Dr. Post’s students as well. One activity that really stuck out to me is the Triptiki activity. I really liked reading about this activity because it is a fun activity that gives the students the choice. I think that giving the students the choice in their work, is one of the best motivating factors we can provide. I also really enjoyed this activity because of how versatile it is. As was said, it can align with different discipline standards, which is great. This can be an activity that we can spend more time on because it is aligned with different disciplines. I also thought that modifying this activity wouldn’t be too hard. Giving students with special needs a couple of choices on where they want to go could reduce time spent on making a decision. While adding a history of the destination or different destinations could be added for gifted students.

    Thank you,

  13. Brittany says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this post with us! I am in Dr. Post’s class at TCC and I’m really glad he had us check out this blog, it’s full of interesting information! I don’t have the best memory, so I’m big into acronyms. I really like the one you discussed, E.N.G.A.G.E. that helps us to remember how to engage our struggling learners.
    Thanks for your post!

  14. Michelle V Covarrubias says:

    Hello, Karen,

    My name is Michelle Covarrubias—another one of Dr. Post’s students!

    Thanks for your review of this source on providing motivation to struggling learners!

    An activity that I have found to be particularly motivating for struggling learners―or rather, have realized would have (but still can be in my future work with students) inspired motivation—is any one where they get to share freely and where there is no “right” answer which they have to hope they have retrieved and recited appropriately from the bank of facts they are supposed to digest according to our curricula.

    Allowing students to reply freely means that we do not correct what they share; we only draw out more from it, asking questions that will lead us to know what our learners understand and do not understand, and therefore what we need to focus on more, while at the same time teaching us about our students’ natural inclinations and personalities, helping us see how we can help them grow socially and emotionally in order that they may learn, from experiencing teamwork firsthand, strategies to apply during group work, as well as coping skills to employ when faced with unpleasant feelings.

    For example, last semester, I worked alongside a teacher, Mr. Prosapio, who learned Spanish entirely in school, until studying abroad in Mexico, and who taught in a pull-out bilingual classroom. In his class, one student, Felix, seemed to perform better in, and respond more readily to, his mother tongue, in which he spoke with much liveliness and intent, but in which, unfortunately, he was seemingly entirely illiterate, as, when we provided him and his classmates with a short picture book called Loco por las manzanas, upon coming to his turn to read aloud, the boy would not even attempt to decode the text, but would instead just say what was going on in the story according to the pictures—narrating for us, in Spanish.

    Reflecting back on it now, I realize that before having asked Felix to read the Spanish text, we should have allowed and encouraged his divergence from the words, as it was another way—though not our intended one—to assess his reading ability. (In retrospect, I do not believe we actually set out to assess his or the others students’ Spanish reading skills; I had expected, I guess, that they would already, somehow, know how to read in Spanish, and that the texts would be at their independent, or at least instructional level, as the words of the book were pretty “basic” for a student of his age—8.)

    Of course, we hope that he can learn to read and write in the language of his culture, but before he can achieve this feat, he needs to believe that he can; and that is more likely to become reality once he experiences success and watches himself perform assignments to which we teachers respond with encouragement rather than corrections. A student’s belief in oneself has so much to do with the motivation he expends; if we were to have allowed Felix to story-tell―to create―rather than asking him to read words written by another, his confidence would likely have increased, as he would have seen affirmations of his response as opposed to dismissal of them and placement back to the planned, formulaic, execution of the lesson.

    Something you discussed that I am interested in accessing in its entirety from Blackburn’s book is the Effective Effort Rubric. I was particularly intrigued by learning that from these, we [our students, and us teachers] can learn if they hold a fixed mindset―meaning they (as I discovered upon looking up the two terms) believe that, in general, a skill is either in one’s set or abilities or it is not—or a growth mindset—one in which they believe that, through the exertion of effort, and of study, they can “acquire any given ability.” A student’s views on “where ability comes from” have a lot to do with the amount of time she is willing to put into efforts when she meets challenges; so, too, do our reactions to students’ performances affect how they look at abilities. Upon achieving a task, do we praise children and tell them that they are “very smart!” or do we congratulate them for having “worked very hard!”?

    I am interested, too, in the third mindset a student can hold―a mixed one. I wonder, upon what conditions a student’s ideas about ability are contingent. Does a student see herself as an equal to her male classmates when it comes to abilities in math and science, but herself relate girlhood to being less able to perform well athletically in P.E. than the boys? How do we alter such mindsets so that she can have believe in herself, an essential—an essential feature of motivation.

  15. Karyn Jones says:

    ​Hello Karen,
    I just want to begin by saying thank you so much for providing so many insightful tips on your blog and it’s been a pleasure reading through it. Blackburn’s sounds like an incredible resource and I will definitely be adding it to my collection. The principles listed in the ENGAGE acronym are all things that I feel like are implicitly included in my philosophy of education but to see it articulated in such an amazing way is so encouraging. The biggest motivator I think for students is forming a strong connection first. Not just as an authority figure who gives out work but rather a mentor and facilitated throughout the learning process. I think that when a student feels their own mind opening and expanding to the world around them there is nothing more encouraging and motivating. I think it’s critical that students know they have an active part in their education; it’s not just something being fed to them consistently but rather something that they take a hold of and see how it forms their life then they will move to the point of self advocacy and fighting for their own education.

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