February 8, 2022

Unpacking Student Motivation

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“If you don’t do the work, then you don’t get the grade.”

The saddest part about that cringe-worthy sentence is that I’ve said it to students before. Early on in my career, I had no idea how to motivate students in my teaching. I’d do my best to plan fun lessons, but I’d resort to a “carrots and sticks” approach when dealing with unmotivated students.

The problem is that controlling students with rewards and consequences only leads to higher levels of anxiety, boredom, or alienation.

It robs students of their natural love for learning and the feelings of joy, enthusiasm, and interest that once came with it. Knowing this impact, how can we best support student motivation in our lessons?

Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory looks at human motivation and tries to understand the factors that push or prevent people from wanting to learn and grow. The theory argues that intrinsic motivation is sustained by satisfying three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy: People want to feel that they are in the driver’s seat of their own experience, that they are in control of setting their own goals and working towards them.

Competence: People want to feel that they are capable of achieving success. This is why they commit to learning new skills and work towards mastery.

Relatedness: People thrive when they feel connected to others. Finding a sense of belonging in one’s experiences is critical being able to realize one’s full potential.

Let’s take a look at teaching strategies that can help us target these needs so that we may support student motivation in P.E.

Supporting Autonomy

Students need to feel that they are in control of their behaviours and goals. To support this, teachers should focus on providing choice, sharing the meaning behind different learning activities, acknowledging how students feel about the various topics explored in class, and working hard to minimize pressure and control in their lessons.

Here are three teaching strategies that I believe can help you increase student autonomy in your lessons:

Student Choice In Activities

There is more than one way to reach a learning target. As you make the goals for learning clear, invite students to propose different activities that align to those goals. For example, if you’re working on chasing & fleeing games tactics, why not ask the class which tag game they would like to play to work on the targeted tactics?

Student Choice In Goal-Setting

As you determine the outcomes-based goals for your units and lessons, provide students with an opportunity to set individual learning targets that are based on those goals. You may show them what’s at the top of the staircase, but allow them to determine which will be their first step to get there. A simple way to do this is to invite students to answer the question “what am I focusing on next?”

Additional Reading:

Designing Learning Roadmaps: A Learning Roadmap (i.e. student-friendly, qualitative rubric) breaks learning down into smaller steps. This can help students identify a goal that is within their reach and then work towards it.

Plickers Assessment Magnets: Magnets make it easy for students to quickly set goals for their learning by placing their magnet on a whiteboard underneath the goal statement (or learning level) that they are working on.

Student Voice In Program Design

Ultimately, your students are the end users of your curriculum. Inviting them to share what they liked, didn’t like, and wish to see more of is a great way to help students feel that they have some ownership over their learning experiences. An end-of-year, anonymous student survey on your teaching and program is a powerful tradition to begin to help your program and teaching best serve your students.

Additional Reading:

Student Feedback In Physical Education: In this blog post, I walk you through the process that I used to gather anonymous student feedback on my teaching and program. I also share the results of those surveys and show you how I used that information to set goals for my professional growth.

Setting Goals for Professional Growth: In this post, I walk you through the system I use to set, track, and measure goals for my professional growth.

Supporting Competence

Students need to feel that they can meet challenges effectively. To help students develop their competence, teachers need to ensure that learning tasks represent optimal challenges for their students: the task should push the student to be their best, but the student needs to believe that they can understand and master it. Also, feedback should always relate to the student’s ability to perform the task effectively and not to the evaluation of their learning. In other words, it should focus on providing information on how to master the task.

Here are three teaching strategies that I believe can help you support student competence in your lessons:

Progressive Activities

Confidence and competence are greatly affected by momentum. Help your students build some their confidence by layering your activities in such a way that allows them to get some early wins under their belt. For example, instead of introducing all of the rules of an activity at once, start with the simplest version of the activity and then progressively add rules that increased its complexity.

Additional Reading:

How To Layer Physical Education Games: Here is a video breakdown of the method I use to break my games down into their simplest form and then gradually increase their complexity, one layer at a time. You can find tons of examples of how I apply this to activities in my Standards-Based Games Database.

Jump Rope Deli - Developing Performance Confidence In Physical Education: In this post, I walk you through the process I used in one of my jump rope units to help my students build their performance confidence through a series of progressive routine performances.

Differentiated Instruction

Every learner is unique. Because of this, there is no “one-size-fits-all” in education. Use ongoing observation, reflection, and assessment to gage each of your students’ progress in their learning. Tailor your feedback and instruction based on the information that you’ve gathered. In other words, meet each learner where they are at and help them identify and take the next step in their learning.

Additional Reading:

Assessment FOR Learning in Physical Education: In this post, I provide examples of how you can bake formative assessment into your lessons. This can help you maximize your ability to provide differentiated feedback and instruction to your students.

Self-Paced Learning

In most situations, a student’s inability to meet performance criteria isn’t the result of a lack of ability: it’s the result of a lack of time. Different learners need to work at different paces in order to grow their competence. Consider using variations of a flipped classroom approach and invite your students to move through the learning activities at their own pace so that they can take the time they need.

Additional Reading:

QR Code Jump Rope Cards: My QR code Jump Rope Cards were created to help flip my classroom and allow students to work at their own pace. Each jump rope skill card features a QR code that links to a video of the skill being performed so that students can follow along.

Teach Me How To Juggle: When the pandemic first hit and my students were all at home, I wanted to come up with a resource that would allow them to learn how to perform a three-ball cascade while working completely independently. The result was this "choose-your-own-adventure"-style "Teach Me How To Juggle" interactive learning guide.

Interactive FMS Skill Posters: Similar to the QR code Jump Rope Cards, the FMS Skill Posters were designed to allow students to find the information that they need when they need it so that they may continue to learn at their own pace. Each poster features a QR code that links to a video of the skill being broken down into its critical elements. I also created a set of similar posters that help break down different volleyball-related skills.

Supporting Relatedness

Students need to feel that the teacher genuinely likes, respects, and values them. To do so, teachers should focus on conveying warmth, respect, and caring towards their students.

Students also want to feel that they belong and are valued members of their classroom community. This is why we need to support our students ability to develop social skills, communication skills, and conflict-resolution skills in order to strengthen the communities that exists within our classes.

Here are three teaching strategies that I believe can help you support relatedness in your lessons:

Ongoing Social & Emotional Learning

Improved social awareness, self-awareness, and relationship skills contribute to richer, deeper bonds between students. These capacities can be developed through meaningful, ongoing social and emotional learning (SEL) experiences. Taking the time to bake SEL into your lessons is an investment in student motivation and one that will continue to benefit your students throughout their lives.

Additional Reading:

Teaching Through An Emotional Lens: In this blog post, I share a simple system/resource that can help you use the CASEL Social and Emotional Learning competencies (and their associated SEL capacities) as a lens through which you can deliver each of your lessons.

Developing Classroom Communities

Simon Sinek once said that “a community is a group of people who agree to grow together.” The classroom is a place where students can grow, but that is largely influenced by the sense of community that exists within it. Strategies such as cooperative learning, classroom charters, and effective peer-assessment can help turn your classroom into a community in which every student feels valued.

Additional Reading:

Using RULER As A Framework For Intentional Social and Emotional Learning: In this post, I introduce you to the RULER framework for social and emotional learning as well as the tools that align to it. One of the core tools from RULE is a Classroom Charter: a co-constructed agreement that represents the students’ expression of values and norms unique to the class.

Jigsaw Learning In Physical Education: The Jigsaw Method is a form of cooperative learning in which each student is responsible for the learning of their peers. It helps every student feel that they are playing an essential role in the lesson and contributing to their group in ways that are valued.

Promoting Responsibility With A Classroom Job Board: Following a deep dive I did into the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) model, I got to thinking about how I could design a jobs board that infused a variety of teaching strategies that support TPSR. The result was a system that involved students building their leadership capacity by taking a progression of responsibilities to help support their classmates.

Mini-Coaching - Effective Peer Assessment in Physical Education: My Mini Coaching peer assessment system was designed to encourage students to play an active role in their classmates' learning.

Teaching With Warmth & Caring

Teaching should be approached with a strong back and open heart. A strong back refers to doing the work necessary to help your students succeed. An open heart means always doing that work from a place of caring. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Remind your students daily - through your words and actions - that you care about them and they will thrive.


Student motivation is not an exact science. They way you will need to approach it will vary from school to school, class to class, or even student to student. That said, Self-Determination Theory can provide you with a framework that you can rely on when you find yourself banging your head against your desk and wondering how you'll ever help your students become motivated in PE.

Understanding and focusing on these three needs - autonomy, competence, relatedness - can help your students feel more intrinsically motivated. Ultimately, this can lead to greater effort, persistence, and psychological well-being in your lessons! All of which will increase the learning and fun that happens in your gym on a daily basis.

If you enjoyed this blog post, feel free to share it with a colleague! You can also subscribe to my newsletter to make sure that you don’t miss out on any future posts that I share.

Thanks so much for reading and happy teaching!

Joey Feith
Joey Feith is a physical education teacher based out of Nova Scotia and the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com.
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