• Hannah Gillott

Motivation in exam classes: how do we maintain it?

We find ourselves once again in a familiar position - schools closed, exams as we know them cancelled, and both teachers and students grappling with the challenges of online learning. But while, on the second (or third, or fourth) go, we know what to expect with our virtual classroom of choice, the timing of Lockdown 3.0 poses a new problem: how to motivate our exam classes for at least five more months without any externally marked exams?

Of course, most educators would rightly recoil from the idea that passing exams is the sole purpose of school – but this doesn’t necessarily translate to a full class of year 11 on Zoom each lesson. The shift towards Teacher Assessed Grades for some students might mean the chance to take their foot off the gas safe in the knowledge that their school won't let them fail. Others - often the most disenfranchised - may completely switch off, dreading the consequences of their future being in the hands of the very people with whom they have perhaps spent years in conflict.

Teachers, too, who have dedicated so much to preparing their students for GCSEs or A levels, might now be wondering how to create a sense of purpose when the planned end point has been removed. The responsibility of deciding which students can access A Levels or university, which students will now face a resit pathway, or which students reach their target grade cannot be underestimated. When navigating such choppy waters, it can be hard to imagine ever reaching the shore again - but now more than ever, it falls to us as educators to convince our students to stick with us and keep rowing. Motivation is a tricky beast – hard to quantify, even harder to manipulate or wield – but there are nonetheless practical steps you can take to nurture it in both your students and yourself.

Revisit the ‘Why’

At its core, motivation is simply the desire to fulfil an as-yet unmet need. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see image on right) teaches us that this ranges from the basic - food, safety, shelter - through to the more complex - meeting one’s full potential, or the chance

to be creative. If the ‘need’ to pass an external exam has disappeared, what has replaced it? Internal assessments are essential as students clamour to improve their Teacher-Assessed Grade, but perhaps this is a good opportunity to think further ahead. If you can find space in your timetable, give students time to create a vision board for the future and encourage them to reflect on how what they are doing right now will support whatever they want to do in five years time.

Create space for socialising

The third level of Maslow’s hierarchy is concerned with relationships and the need to feel a sense of belonging - yet few among us can have escaped even a fleeting sense of isolation and loneliness during the past year. Many students will have gone weeks, if not months, without meaningful social interaction outside their family bubble, at a time when such relationships are critical to developing a sense of identity and self esteem. Live lessons cannot, and should not, replace the friendship groups we hope our young people have developed, but they can at least offer a reminder that there is still a world beyond their bedroom walls. A friendly check in using a student’s name, a running class joke, or even a moment to discuss what’s in the news can help young people feel less alone. And it’s these sorts of exchanges that make teaching such a pleasure in the first place.

Fine tune your work environment

Five hours of online lessons are not comparable to five hours in a classroom. Are your students sitting in chairs with back support? Do they get up and move around between lessons? Are they drinking enough water? Have they turned down their screen brightness or activated night mode to protect their eyesight? As importantly, have you?

A headache or sore back is unlikely to lead to effective learning, but there are plenty of simple, preventative steps that can make long periods at a computer more comfortable. Consider starting or ending lessons by asking students to spend one minute stretching (get some good ideas here), and check whether they are using phones or laptops - switching these to Dark Mode could help relieve the symptoms of eye strain. At the bottom of this post you’ll find guidance on how to do this for both Android and iOS.

Celebrate the small successes

When so much is out of our hands, something as simple as joining a 9am Teams lesson warrants praise. This isn’t setting our standards low - it’s acknowledging that we are living through unprecedented times where even the most resilient among us might some days struggle to get out of bed. You never know which child needed to hear that they were doing well because they logged on today, or they volunteered an answer in the class chat. Think of self esteem as coins in a jar: popping another coin in is never a bad thing but taking one out is a problem if the jar is almost empty. When your live lessons are a place where students feel good about themselves simply for joining in, they are more likely to make the effort.

Test a new method

Creating and sustaining motivation is big business, and there are countless experts out there claiming to have found the key. The truth is, one size doesn’t fit all and a certain amount of experimentation is needed to find the best strategy for you. To finish, we’ve rounded up a few popular methods that could help boost your productivity through the coming months.

For horrible jobs that need doing today, try:

For longer-term results, try:

Nothing feels normal anymore, and whatever your role within education, it might seem as though the future holds only more uncertainty and doubt. But uncertainty also means opportunity, and if nothing else let that be your motivation. When the comfortable old ways are ripped out from beneath us, we are forced to adapt - and this could mean discovering new ways of using the Internet to support teaching and learning, new ways of organising our time, or new ways of engaging with our students that we might in fact decide to hold onto.

Found these tips useful? Let us know in the comments - and please share!

Find out how Stylus is supporting schools in delivering fair, robust Teacher Assessed Grades here.

Switching to Dark Mode

Activating Dark Mode on your Windows Laptop:

Activating Dark Mode on your Mac:

Activating Dark Mode on your Android phone:

Activating Dark Mode on your iPhone or iPad:

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