Student Motivation in the Presence of the P Word

I recently received this email from a friend. Maybe you can relate:

I’m about to stroke out over Emily. She’s behind by twelve assignments and they’re all due on Sunday. She says she can’t do homework if she’s “not motivated,” that she can’t “just sit down and start it.” One of her teachers is in the hospital, and her school is going back to totally online instruction. Do I come down hard or do I give her a pass?

Wow there’s a lot to unpack there! Student motivation takes on a whole new weight in the context of 2020. As periods of remote learning have brought us into each other’s homes, many parents are getting an up-close look at the skills teachers deploy to keep students engaged. In news stories and on social media, it’s easy to find examples of parents saying things like, “I had no idea how hard teachers worked. I don’t know how they do it!”

While we all procrastinate—like putting off prepping lessons for tomorrow to watch Netflix tonight—about twenty percent of the population are “true procrastinators,” according to researcher and author of Still  Procrastinating? Dr. Joseph R. Ferrari.¹ True procrastinators put things off to the point of facing life-altering consequences, like Emily’s possibility of failing an entire semester. “[People] think that procrastinators are just lazy,” Ferrari says. “And that’s not what’s going on. It’s an avoidance strategy. It’s a way of never demonstrating to yourself or to others your abilities or your capabilities.”²

One way out of the procrastination bind is to help students build self- efficacy—the belief that they can complete a particular task. Including more active learning tools like Writing to Win’s Applied Grammar Sentence Building puzzles. Each puzzle provides strong student motivation by fully integrating reading and writing, sentence by sentence with an engaging attraction impossible to resist. Assigned virtual or in-person PALs reduce the level of procrastination as student pairs analyze puzzles of 2+ sentences

         The sun set in the west. (As)

         The heroine rode away. (,)

with simple signals that ensure success. In their minds, student PALs move the signals in front of the two sentences they follow and combine them into a complex sentence with an adverb clause.

         As the sun set in the west, the heroine rode away.

The online edition increases the strong motivation with immediate, positive feedback to every puzzle. When students move through a dozen puzzles in oral and written practice, they reach a level of automaticity. Teachers also hear, “Is this all we have? Can we do more of these?” The final motivator is the appearance of well-formed complex sentences in students independent writing. Teachers and students alike note the improved writing quality and celebrate. And all of this strong student motivation is intrinsic, nothing contrived, nothing external that has to be reapplied. 

In a non-therapeutic way, this building of self-efficacy is a way to change students’ thinking from “That’s not something I can do” to “Look what I did!” For clinically identified procrastinators, Dr. Ferrari recommends Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), because changing how we think about our behavior is the first step towards changing our behavior. Thankfully, most of our students do not fit this category, and learning strategies like Sentence Building can launch student learning in ways that become strong student motivation in their own right.

Remember, no matter how much we hope for continuous improvement in student performance, there will always be some ebb and flow in student motivation. With sensitivity and tenacity, teachers and parents can find an effective amount of push-pull for most kids—even if we earn a few grey hairs in the process!


  1. Ward, Alle. “Volitional Psychology with Dr. Joseph R. Ferrari.” Ologies Podcast. February 25, 2020.
  2. Butler, Kelsey. “Six Myths You’ve Been Told About Procrastination and Productivity.” May 24, 2017.
  3. Combs, Warren. Applied Grammar (Sentence Building), 2021,

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels