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Catalyze Self-Motivation Through Student-Teacher Connections

To inspire intrinsic motivation in education majors, Ellen Stohl, MS, uses her psychology background to create relationships that allow it to bloom.


Ellen Stohl, MS

Lecturer of Educational Psychology and Counseling & Special Education, California State University, Northridge

BA in Communications, MS in Educational Psychology and Counseling; K–8 Clear Credential, Education

When Ellen Stohl was doing her internship in Marriage and Family Therapy, she realized that it was not her true calling. “You can’t actually teach a client to do something, you have to wait for them to figure things out” she says. “And I thought it was too slow.” That observation would come as no surprise to those who know her: Whether she is teaching, parenting, or driving her Ford Mustang, Stohl’s pace is full speed ahead. So, after earning her MS in educational psychology, Stohl embraced her passion for teaching, taught grades K-8 for 14 years and eventually ended up as adjunct professor at California State University, Northridge.

Over the years, Stohl—who moonlights as a motivational speaker, writer, and inclusion consultant—has learned a thing or two about helping people become more driven to learn. Interestingly, she has found the perfect recipe by combining her interests in psychology and education. “My teaching style has a strong psychosocial element,” she explains. “Learning is emotional, and making a connection with students is what gives them a sense of safety and a feeling of belonging. When basic efficiency needs are not addressed, students are not truly available to process content and apply themselves. It is essential to build a relationship with students, acknowledge their basic needs, and be mindful of their lives outside of school. All of this motivates them in class.”

While this may sound theoretical, Stohl has created some fundamental principles and practical exercises that can help foster a student-teacher connection in almost any classroom setting. For future teachers taking her Educational Psychology course, this provides the twin benefit of modeling some habits that they can carry into their own classrooms. She shares a few of her favorites below.


“A good teacher can inspire students to apply themselves and master content if they start by building relationships with them.”

— Ellen Stohl, MS

Course: EPC 315/500 Educational Psychology

Course description: EPC 315 Psychological Foundations of Learning and Teaching (3)

Study of the theory and research of educational psychology to backgrounds and needs. These principles of educational psychology form a foundation of knowledge about teaching that is built upon in subsequent courses in teaching methods and practice teaching. Topics studied include learning, motivation, development (cognitive, language, socio-emotional, physical and moral) and their relationship to learning and instruction, cognition, assessment, classroom management, and individual and group differences in learning. Implications for teaching students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, as well as students with special needs, are considered throughout the course. Students begin to develop a professional portfolio which course, students are required to spend a minimum of 20 hours participating and/or observing in public schools. Integration of coursework and field work provides students the opportunity to complete various assignments in preparation for meeting Teacher Performance Expectations (TPE).

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5 strategies to foster self-motivation through student-teacher connection

Motivation is integrated into each of Stohl’s systems and class meetings. Here are a few strategies she uses on an everyday basis to build the type of relationship with students that awakens their inner motivation to learn.

1. Get to know them with guided poetry: The Suitcases I Carry

Stohl introduces the first exercise this way: “Throughout our lives we travel many roads. From our first breath as an infant we begin to experience life and collect memories. As our journey through life continues, we pack more and more experiences in our psyche and carry these encounters with us. What we have been through, good and bad, leaves a mark on our being that impacts who we are and how we interact with the world. It is important that we reflect upon the content of the suitcases so that we are not carried away by them but rather we carry them to where we want to go.”

To that end, Stohl uses guided poetry and writing. Guided writing builds bonds between students and their teacher and peers, while helping students better know themselves, says Stohl. “Being heard and recognized for who you are is a basic need,” she explains.

Begin, Stohl suggests, by giving students an outline of a poem to use as a template, with some of the nouns and adjectives replaced by blanks. Then ask them to fill in the blanks with personal information. Everyone uses the same template, but each poem ends up being unique, and they reveal a lot about the students. “This may seem like a very structured way to write a poem, but with structure comes safety. Students are not left wondering what to do so they can tap into their creativity and exercise their individual freedom, which can be motivating,” Stohl says.

Here is an example:

In my … (describe suitcase) I have (thrown in, neatly folded, etc)

________________ (common items from childhood), _____________, (specific

products) and _________________. (specific sounds or smells you recall) and a

specific memory you have.

I have (thrown in, neatly folded, etc) _______ (a specific story about yourself or a family

member with at least three details), the _______ , and the _______ (another detail

about yourself or another family member).

Here is an excerpt from Stohl’s own poem, which she shares with the class:

In my old brown trunk covered with brightly faded travel stickers I have neatly folded: Dawn dolls, books, and running shoes. Tucked away are: Farmer John’s sausage cut in a million pieces, homemade waffles and Hershey Bars

I have placed on top: the wet road at breakneck speed that changed my life, Alice, through the looking glass, Sternberg/modeling, midsummer’s night dreams chasing rabbits on whirlwind trips around the globe and becoming an expert on things I never imagined. Carefully folded are: the research in a Jersey that brought me my love and the soft skin of my daughter as I clutched her chest and helped bring her into this world.

Next, ask each student to read his or her poem aloud to the class, then have the whole class analyze the poem—first line by line and then holistically—to identify key concepts, get clarification where needed, and learn more about the writer.

An optional follow-up to this exercise is having the students create a collage that represents who they are, then share it with the class. (The two assignments work well together, says Stohl.)

2. Have them journal about everyday life

A professor is not expected to be a stand-in parent. But showing an interest in the basics, such as how students are feeling that day or how much sleep they got last night, gives a professor clues to how they will participate in the class. It also is another path to creating an emotional connection that can encourage students to self-motivate. “I recognize they have very busy lives outside of school,” says Stohl, “and that sort of understanding can be emotionally motivating.”

Journaling is the tool that Stohl uses most often to glean this type of information. Here is her approach:

Give students about five minutes of class time to write as much or as little as they would like about whatever is on their mind. Remember that not every student will want to open up, but they can participate to the extent that they are comfortable. Then ask students to hand in their journals before they leave. (Stohl adds that this is an easy way to take attendance.)

Before the next class meeting, read each student’s entry and add thoughtful and empathetic comments, such as, “Looks like this was a tough day for you,” or “Thank you for telling me,” or “Nice job challenging yourself.”

3. Find out who is motivated by feedback

Google Docs is designed for students and teachers to comment on a document and revise it, while storing a record of the changes and who made them. Stohl uses this tool to give students as much feedback as possible on how to improve their writing by having them post a first draft (which could be written in class), reading it, noting its strengths, offering specific suggestions about how to address its weaknesses, notifying the student that revisions have been recommended, then providing the student with time to make those revisions. On the rewrite, she double-checks that the student has considered the comments and made the appropriate fixes. (All of this is transparent in Google Docs because there is a record of each comment and change; students can reply to her comments if they are not sure what she means.)

“Using Google Docs for group work also gives me a window into who is commenting and who is not,” says Stohl. In other words, it is a record of who is motivated by her feedback to revise and share, and who appears to be ghosting the assignment.

4. Set clear objectives to allow for “wins”

When classes feel daunting, it is often because students have not received enough preliminary guidance and/or feedback that shows they are on the right path. According to Stohl, that is when motivation craters.

“Instead, set a clear objective for every assignment,” Stohl says. “Fear and shame are not motivating feelings. Having a roadmap and transparent expectations make it more likely a student will do well on early assignments, which will help when class gets more demanding later in the semester.”

Being proactive and communicating clearly are also part of the process of building self-motivation. Early wins—and clear goals—help students internalize a feeling of mastery and feel comfortable to begin challenging themselves.

5. Use scaffolding to build mastery and confidence

Scaffolded assignments, in which each step builds on skills from the previous ones, give students a sense that they are learning something new and valuable as they move through the semester. “The hope is that the bar is gradually set higher and higher. Concepts build off one another so they are reinforced and students move toward mastery. The students rework concepts and apply them in a variety of ways so that assignments evolve into a holistic course-long process instead of a typical “one and done” approach. Scaffolding concepts allows for students to tap into their prior knowledge, utilize one another as resources, and ask for help when they need to, instead of assuming that the professor will jump in,” says Stohl.

This approach also puts the onus on the student to ask questions actively rather than to wait to be told what to do. “Independence isn’t doing it alone,” she says. “It’s getting the job done. So letting people ask questions empowers them. It shows them that they know what they need to in order to work through a problem. And that can inspire them to want to learn more and more.”

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