This one Sentence will Make You More Effective

Way back in the 1980s the US Secretary of Education Terrel Bell once said,

“There are three things to emphasize in teaching: The first is motivation, the second is motivation, and the third is (you guessed it) motivation.”  (Terrel H. Bell, U.S. Secretary of Education, 1981-1985.)

If motivation is so important, then student success depends on it.

It sounds simple: figure out how to motivate students and success will follow.

Here’s the problem…

Motivation is terribly misunderstood.

I’ve written about student motivation before and have come to some startling conclusions.  In a nutshell, what we think motivates students… Doesn’t. But what does?

First, let’s define motivation as the act of giving someone a reason to do something.

Many teachers rely on a scientific management strategy of carrots and sticks.

  • Carrots = Reward good behavior through grades and prizes
  • Sticks = Punish bad behavior

Except, it’s been proven time and time again that this doesn’t work.

Meet Roland Fryer.  Fryer is head of Harvard’s Education Innovation Lab and has tried some amazing real world experiments.  He’s paid:

  • Students for reading books
  • Teachers for raising their students’ test scores
  • Parents for attending parent-teacher conferences,
  • He has given kids cell phones to inspire them to study harder
  • Altogether, he has handed out millions of dollars in rewards and prizes.

As a body of work, Fryer’s incentive studies have marked one of the biggest and most thorough educational experiments in American history.

And yet, in almost every case, the effect of Fryer’s incentive programs has been….


That’s right.  The money paid had no long term effect on motivation. Motivation does not equate to “do this and get that.”

As Dan Ariely, head of Duke’s Advanced Hindsight Lab, describes in his book Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations,

“Motivation = Money + Achievement + Happiness+ Sense of Progress+ Purpose+ Retirement Security + Caring about Others+ Your Legacy + Status + How many kids at home + Pride + E + P + X (all kinds of other elements).”

Most of the variables in that equation are internal.  So as teachers let’s tap into those.

Remember the acronym CAPP: Connection, Autonomy, Progress, and Purpose.

  1. Connection – For the sake of brevity, let’s roll a few of the variables (Status, Caring about Others, and Relatedness) into one category we’ll call Connection. Bottom line: We all want to be liked, admired, and cared about.
  2. Autonomy – As Ariely describes from years of research, “(I) realized how many of our motivations spring from trying to conquer a sense of helplessness and reclaim even a tiny modicum of control over our lives.”
  3. Progress – Many scientists have determined that progress is the most motivating factor in the world.  Even perceived progress is ridiculously motivating.
  4. Purpose – Why am I doing this?

(Want to motivate students? You might want to get more ideas delivered to your inbox )

Look around your desk.  You probably have 2 simple items that you can use to motivate students with CAPP.

  1. Post it Notes
  2. Notecards

Let me explain…

Post it Notes

The social scientist Randy Gardner wondered whether sticky notes could motivate people.  He sent out surveys to people with a request to complete them.  He tested three different conditions:

  • A handwritten sticky note requesting completion of the survey which was attached to a cover letter
  • A similar handwritten message on the cover letter
  • Cover letter and survey alone

The Results:

  • More than 75% of the people who received the survey with the sticky note request filled it out and returned it
  • 48% of second group
  • 36% of the the third group

But maybe it wasn’t the message on a sticky note. Could it be the simple fact that sticky notes are attention grabbing in neon?
To test possibility he conducted a second experiment. His three conditions:

  • Post it note with handwritten request
  • Blank post it note
  • No post it note at all

Again a handwritten sticky note outperformed – with 69% compared to 43% with blank sticky note and 34% for surveys with no sticky note.

So what’s the explanation?

Gardner suggests that people recognize the extra effort and personal touch. They feel the need to reciprocate. Reciprocity is the social glue that helps brings and keeps people together in cooperative relationships.  But what about the quality of the responses?
Those who got a sticky note turned in survey more promptly and gave more effortful, detailed, and attentive answers to the questions.

What’s more is when researchers made it even more personal by adding initials and a thank- you to the sticky note, the response shot up even higher.

The evidence is clear.  If you want to motivate students: write sticky notes.  But what should you write?

(Want more ideas on motivation? You might want to click here.)

The Magic 19 Words

A Stanford University study, found that middle school students who received the magical 19 word feedback demonstrated at least a 40% jump in productivity and achievement far outpacing students who received every other form of feedback.

So, what are the 19 words?

“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.

Students who were given a sticky note with that specific phrase, turned in revised essays 72% of the time.  Only 17% of those given teacher’s regular feedback turned in revised essays. Those who turned in revised essays, also raised their grades.

Screenshot 2017-02-11 07.41.31.png

The authors of the study concluded that, “Our studies highlight the importance of trust for adolescent development. Studies showed that chronic mistrust, measured over the 2 years in middle school, was strongly predictive of minority students’ ability to benefit from a teacher’s critical feedback.”

If you don’t trust the feedback is coming from an authentic place, you won’t believe it.
This intervention worked because the note conveys:

  1. You belong here.
  2. Our class has high standards.
  3. I believe that you have the talent to achieve these standards.

Magic?  Probably not.  But if you convey these 3 concepts consistently your students will trust your feedback and perform better.


As I wrote in an article for Edutopia,

This is one reason that the De La Salle High School football team holds the record for the longest winning streak. They all made commitment cards each week and were held accountable by a partner.

Each week, the players would write down their goals, then on Friday they would declare their partner goals to the whole team.
Just writing down goals makes it 49% more likely that you will achieve them.

If you combine that with a swim buddy or commitment partner…

You are 76% more likely to achieve your goals!

Below is part of our Grit Builders worksheets (available here).
Screenshot 2016-11-15 11.04.35.png

What categories could you use with your students? Write your commitment in one or all of these categories. Discuss it with a partner. Friday-follow-up with your partner, to see if you have kept your word.

When we make a commitment that is public, effortful, and active we are much more likely to follow through.

This strategy involves all elements of CAPP.  Connection with a classmate, Autonomy to pick your goal for the week, Progress can be seen if you accomplish goals, and it establishes a Purpose for the week.

If you can combine these two tools which are probably sitting on your desk as you read this, then you can help students motivate themselves.


PS – If you think motivation and engaging students is important then you might want to check out the Engagement Checklist because it is a surefire way to engage students.

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  1. David,

    I’m huge on feedback. Matter of fact, I have dropped grades and replaced them with ongoing feedback. This was a great article. My takeaway was the power of the Post It’s. I never thought to use them this way. Thanks for the great idea. Keep them coming.

    Liked by 1 person

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