As a teacher, I have faced and asked this question again and again. How do we motivate students to learn in a grade-less learning environment?
In my view there are three important things to motivate students in such an environment:
One of the most important things in motivating students is that the teacher himself ought to be motivated and excited about what he/she is teaching. This helps motivated students to relate to someone, and encourages the less motivated ones to join in the fun. By default, most students don’t pay attention to anything being taught formally, which works to bring down the teacher’s motivation. But if the teacher understands the importance of staying motivated, he can become the cause of a sea-change in class attitude towards a subject.
I would go as far as saying that acting as if you are actually excited about the subject, even if you don’t feel particularly motivated to teach it, can bring immense benefits to students. That would really help. It’s certainly not possible to be excited about every topic you are teaching. But your apparent excitement can induce that ferver into students who initially took that subject as boring. You never know, may be one of your students discovers their passion in life just because you taught something in a new and excited way? Now that would be something you can be proud of, any day.
Wherever it’s possible, individual attention to a student works like magic. While you must avoid making favourites (which is challenging in its own right), you can give every student a feeling that he/she is special to you. This can start by simply remembering the names of your students. Calling a student by name gives them the impression that everything they’ve said and done in class is being noticed by the teacher. They feel special, and want to stay tuned in kind.
You can also involve students in physical activities within the class. For example, if you want to explain a concept, which involves physical things like routers and computers, you can represent a student as a router and always create a scenario in which everyone is involved. You can have enough scenarios that every student gets involved at least once in every class (in case of a large number of students). This requires some planning, but the dividends and cognitive benefits to students are enormous.
Studying Mathematics and Science purely from a theoretical stand-point gives our students the impression that the practical world out there and what they are learning has no connection whatsoever. Of course nothing could be farther from the truth, but if no attempt is made to build and grow connections between studies and their real world application, students gradually lose interest and wander their minds away. Worse still is the student attitude where students take studies as some sort of exam-preparation, to be thrown away and forgotten as soon as exams are over.
This can be tackled by introducing projects. In my view, hands-on real world relevance of a topic is the most important aspect of learning. We seriously lack projects in our schools. This becomes more apparent as a student transitions into university. Hands-on can never beat merely telling the relevance with the real-world. So, set up a small project as your class goal. Then learn and teach concepts to help students complete that project.
Projects typically are designed for discovery and intuition. As a teacher you can ask your students to complete the project with minimal supervision. Make it an iterative process, rather than spoon-feeding everything. Let students learn by making mistakes.