Motivation Challenge 3: Classroom Instruction Does Not Engage

Profile of a Student with This Motivation Problem: The student is distracted or off-task because classroom instruction and learning activities are not sufficiently reinforcing to hold his or her attention.


What the Research Says: In classroom settings, students can choose to respond to a variety of reinforcing events—for example, watching the teacher, interacting with peers, looking out the window at passing traffic. The fact is that classroom instruction must always compete for student attention with other sources of reinforcement (Billington & DiTommaso, 2003; Skinner, Pappas, & Davis, 2005). There are two ways that the instructor can increase the student’s motivation to attend to classroom instruction:  (1) by decreasing the reinforcing power of competing (distracting) stimuli, and/or (2) by increasing the reinforcing power of academic activities.


How to Verify the Presence of This Motivation Problem: The teacher observes that the student is engaged in behaviors other than those related to instruction or is otherwise distracted by non-instructional events occurring in the classroom. Furthermore, the teacher has verified that the student’s lack of attention to instruction is not due primarily to that student’s attempting to escape or avoid difficult classwork.


How to Fix This Motivation Problem: The teacher can increase the inattentive student’s focus on instruction and engagement in learning activities by using one or both of the strategies below:

  • Reduce the Reinforcing Power of Non-Instructional Activities. The teacher identifies any non-instructional activities in the classroom that are competing with instruction for the student’s attention and takes steps to reduce or eliminate them.
  • Increase the Reinforcing Power of Classroom Instruction. The teacher strives to boost the reinforcing quality of academic activities and instruction to better capture and hold the student’s attention.

Try These Ideas to Improve Motivation by Reducing the Reinforcing Power of Non-Instructional Activities:

  • Use Preferential Seating (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). The teacher seats a student who is distracted by peers or other environmental factors in a location where the student is most likely to stay focused on instructional content. All teachers have an 'action zone', a part of the room where they tend to focus most of their instruction; the instructor seats the distractible student somewhere within that zone. The ideal seating location for any particular student will vary, depending on the unique qualities of that student and of the classroom.
  • Create Low-Distraction Work Areas (U.S. Department of Education, 2004.  For students who are off-task during independent seatwork, the teacher can set up a study carrel in the corner of the room or other low-distraction work area. The teacher can then either direct the distractible student to use that area whenever independent seatwork is assigned or can permit the student to choose when to use the area.
  • Restrict Student Access to Electronic Devices and Other Potential Distracting Objects. The teacher creates a list of personal possessions that can pose the potential to distract from instruction (e.g., cell phones, personal game devices, etc.). The teacher either completely bans use of these items of student property at any point during a course session or restricts their use to clearly specified times or conditions.

Try These Ideas to Improve Motivation by Increasing the Reinforcing Power of Classroom Instruction and Activities:

  • Use Bellringer Activities. The teacher routinely gives students ‘bellringer’ activities to work on as soon as they enter the classroom. The point of this strategy is to capture students’ attention at the outset with academically relevant activities. Ideally, bellringer tasks should be engaging but also should review and reinforce previously taught content or prepare students for the upcoming lesson.
  • Provide Opportunities for Choice (Kern, Bambara, & Fogt, 2002). Teachers who allow students a degree of choice in structuring their learning activities typically have fewer behavior problems in their classrooms than teachers who do not. One efficient way to promote choice in the classroom is for the teacher to create a master menu of options that students can select from in various learning situations. For example, during independent assignment, students might be allowed to (1) choose from at least 2 assignment options, (2) sit where they want in the classroom, and (3) select a peer-buddy to check their work. Student choice then becomes integrated seamlessly into the classroom routine.
  • Structure Lessons around High-Interest or Functional-Learning Goals (Kern, Bambara, & Fogt, 2002; Miller et al., 2003). A student is more likely to be engaged when academic lessons are based on ‘high-interesttopics that interest the student (e.g., NASCAR racing; fashion) or that have a ‘functional-learning’ pay-off—e.g., job interview skills; money management skills --that the student values and can apply in his or her own life. 
  • Incorporate Cooperative Learning Activities into Instruction (Beyda, Zentall, & Ferko, 2002; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002). Teacher-directed cooperative learning activities can be highly reinforcing for adolescent students, who typically find opportunities to interact with classmates to be a strong motivator.  Cooperative learning tasks have the added advantages of promoting active student engagement and allowing the instructor to get real-time feedback through direct observation about the abilities and learning of individual students.
  • Maintain a Brisk Pace of Instruction (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002). Instruction that is well-matched to the abilities of the classroom and moves at a brisk pace is most likely to capture and hold student attention. Additionally, the teacher is careful to avoid ‘dead time’, interruptions of instruction (e.g., time-consuming transitions to other activities; etc.) when students may get off-task and be difficult to redirect back to academic tasks.


  • Beyda, S.D., Zentall, S.S., & Ferko, D.J.K. (2002). The relationship between teacher practices and the task-appropriate and social behavior of students with behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 27, 236-255. 
  • Billington, E., & DiTommaso, N. M. (2003). Demonstrations and applications of the matching law in education. Journal of Behavioral Education, 12, 91-104.
  • Gettinger, M., & Seibert, J.K. (2002). Best practices in increasing academic learning time. In A. Thomas (Ed.), Best practices in school psychology IV: Volume I (4th ed., pp. 773-787). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. 
  • Kern, L., Bambara, L., & Fogt, J. (2002). Class-wide curricular modifications to improve the behavior of students with emotional or behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 27, 317-326. 
  • Linnenbrink, E. A., & Pintrich, P. R. (2002). Motivation as an enabler for academic success. School Psychology Review, 31, 313-327.
  • Miller, K.A., Gunter, P.L., Venn, M.J., Hummel, J., & Wiley, L.P. (2003). Effects of curricular and materials modifications on academic performance and task engagement of three students with emotional or behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorder, 28, 130-149. 
  • Skinner, C. H., Pappas, D. N., & Davis, K. A. (2005). Enhancing academic engagement: Providing opportunities for responding and influencing students to choose to respond. Psychology in the Schools, 42, 389-403.
  • U.S. Department of Education (2004). Teaching children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: Instructional strategies and practices. Retrieved July 7, 2011, from