Motivation and Learning

Motivation and Learning

Here’s the bad news: The truth is, we can’t teach anybody anything.

The good news, however, is that people are motivated to learn, conditionally. We can’t teach a truth—or even a simple fact—to someone who is not ready to learn, or who does not desire to learn. It’s like trying to teach a pig to sing—it just wastes your time and annoys the pig! Good teachers facilitate learning. Great teachers know how to motivate learning in others.


Experienced teachers know the necessity of motivation for learning, yet one of the most difficult challenges for teachers is motivating learners. As any teacher knows, attempts at motivating learners to want to learn often degenerates to . . . well, there’s no nice way to put it: bribes! And when those lose their effectiveness (really, how long can you “up the ante” with what you will use to bribe learners?), then you know you’re in trouble when your primary motivational method is “If you don’t pay attention I’ll . . . .”


The best motivation is an internal desire to learn and participate. External motivators tend to be little more than “attention getters.” Novelty and making things interesting are not motivators. True motivations are based on perceived personal needs, real or imagined, on the part of the learner.



Learners are motivated to learn when you set an achievable goal that is meaningful to the them, and when your lesson process involves relevant exploration of a Bible truth to the life of the learner. As you teach, consider that the learner is thinking, “So what does this have to do with me?” If you can answer the question, “So what?” then you’ve identified the relevance of the study passage. Principle: Learners need to see a relationship between what is being learned and their own immediate needs.



Nothing helps motivate us more than when we feel successful at something. Learners who have a sense of mastery over the content of the lesson feel motivated to learn more. This is why it’s important to use a learner-centered approach rather than a teaching-centered approach. Richards said, “In a teacher-centered class, information passes one way—from teacher to learner. This doesn’t give the student a chance to test their learning, to find out if they really understand the truths.

“But when students have a chance to participate, they can express their ideas and in this way test their learning. They prove to themselves that they understand.”
Principle: Motivation is increased when the learner is successful in translating information into life, in seeing a new area of relevance.



One of the most powerful motivators for learning happens when learners can see the effect of what they have studied in their lives. The power behind Jesus’ teaching was that everything he taught was meant to have an immediate impact in the lives of his hearers. Jesus never taught a theory course! To help your learners be motivated, teach for results. Ask yourself, “What difference will it make in the life of my learners that they came to my class today?”


Principle: Learners must be able to see the effects that the truths learned in your class have in their lives.

Lawrence O. Richards, in his classic book, Creative Bible Teaching, pointed out that while teachers understand the personal factors of motivation, they often neglect the “Structural Factors in Motivation.” Structural factors are those elements that are built into the structure of the lesson. Understanding and using these structural factors in your teaching will help you plan lessons that motivate your learners to learn. Here are four factors of motivation you can incorporate into your lesson structure:


Principle: When you build your lesson with a goal in mind, and in the initial minute of the class share that goal with the class in a way that makes the goal theirs, you’re building motivation into your lesson structure. Look over your lesson structure. If you can identify places in the lesson where you provide opportunities for the above to happen, then you’re on your way to helping your learners be motivated for learning.




See: Lawrence O. Richards, Creative Bible Teaching (Chicago: Moody Press, 1970).

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.


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