Make Your Classroom Better By Understanding the Four Types of Motivation

Four Ways to Unlock the Mystery of Motivation

how to motivate students

I wanted to open this blog post with ramblings of how motivation can change throughout the school year, but I decided against it because we all know the deal with motivation: It does what it wants to do. It can come, and it can go. We just have to decide how to fight back against the utter lack of motivation that presents itself in our own bodies and minds and in our students looking back at us in our classrooms. It is important to note the relationships between motivation, expectations, and behavior management as we establish norms for the fall and the beginning of the year. If we understand motivation, we can troubleshoot any foreseeable classroom management issues as well. If we make our lessons engaging and root our energy and enthusiasm in our delivery, we can help students access our expectations in a variety of ways. Because according to Gretchen Rubin, we all have different tendencies towards outer and inner expectations.

For me, I know one of my ways to stay motivated throughout the school year is to find those passion projects that motivate me. I love blogging and journaling, and I use both of those hobbies as outlets for reflection and the processing of stress. During one of my podcast listening sessions while writing, I clicked on a conversation between Rachel Hollis and Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. She and Rachel were discussing her book The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) in regards to mindset. She states that there are four main tendencies regarding motivation, and these four tendencies can overlap. I have always been hesitant to put people into groups; however, as I was listening, it made complete sense to me to tie the ideas of motivation to expectation. Gretchen proposes that her framework helps us to understand “why we act and why we don’t act” (12). As a teacher, all I want in my classroom is action. I want my kids to be doing all of the things: doing the work, doing the thinking, doing the learning. I just also need to understand why they are not acting in my classroom and how to help facilitate this process of participation.

Image taken from  Gretchen Rubin’s Website

Before reading the rest of the post, you should take the quiz and find out what tendency you are. Take the quiz here!


I thought I was an Upholder based on the description because I am always checking off all the to-do lists with warrior-strength. I am totally a Questioner. And why wouldn’t I be? I am constantly on the hunt for new information, and I ask questions even without knowing I am asking questions. A new water heater? I am researching. What blog post title has the best SEO? Questions. What strategy best motivates students? Where is Pinterest so I can see what others are doing too. I have always been naturally curious about everything around me, but I also need buy-in to participate in any activity for my self or even for others. Another example of this is fitness. I am recently getting back into a consistent yoga routine. I caught myself rationalizing and researching the benefits of at least 20 minutes of yoga practice each day. I make lists on lists about home workouts vs spending the money for accountability. I am a researcher.; I am a Questioner. This also made more sense as I thought about my own experiences in schooling. I, at times, had to be convinced why I should participate. I wanted to work harder for the teachers that challenged me and that had earned my respect. I’ve always been this way. Now, I want to understand how my interactions are impacted by people who are non-Questioners. Also, when I am designing professional development, I keep my own questions in mind. I am trained to think about the purpose behind why we do the things that we do. This is all because I have this tendency toward expectations of my world and my self.


So, what if we thought about our classrooms in terms of expectations and motivations? Again, I thought this idea made complete and total sense. I also got to thinking about how easy it would be to lump our students into the Rebel category because they are not complying; however, maybe they have different tendencies to respond to expectation, and we just aren’t accessing that information. I love that this paradigm is a different way to look at student behavior, and therefore, examining why are students are choosing to participate. I then also have a slew of reflection questions about imposing outer expectations on students, and then wanting them to help to determine their own inner expectations. Simply, this would make a great all-staff book study to have some important conversations about why kids do what they do. Education, schools, and classrooms are all about expectations. However, what expectations are our students choosing to go along with? How do we respond if they refuse? There is powerful reflection in the action of the teacher’s reaction to student response.


I wanted to reflect on my experiences with what I feel are each type of student in the classroom. I cannot speak for each student, but I feel that these general conversations provide insight as to how we, as teachers, respond to the challenge of inner and outer expectations in the classroom. According to the results of Gretchen Rubin’s test of the four tendencies, “At 41%, Obliger was the largest tendency. Next came Questioner, at 24%. The Rebel Tendency had the fewest numbers, at 17%...the Upholder Tendency, was just slightly large at 19%” (8). Again, looking at Rubin’s observations got me thinking about all of the conversations I have ever had with another teacher regarding behavior or classroom management. How often do we jump to a place where students are noncompliant? How often do we dread dealing with defiance? When do we label students “bad?” I feel like all of these questions surround the different tendencies that our students have in their interactions regarding our given expectations. On an even deeper level, as a teacher of English, how do these expectations come up when it comes to reading and writing? Perhaps, it would be important to look at what kinds of prompts we are giving, how much choice is given, and how we frame the parameters of assignments in our ELA classrooms.




This category reminds me the most of a perfectionist student. Stereotypically, this may be an advanced placement student or a student that seems to not cause any classroom misbehaviors. Perhaps, these students are seen as “good” because they never break the mold of expectation. However, I often wonder how tired of routine these students get in the course of sustained achievement. Rubin states, “An Upholder child will practice the piano without many reminders, plan ahead to pack the right soccer equipment, and keep track of the school schedule” (52). If this is the case, when do they have fun? What about when schedules are different? I need to keep this type of student in mind when there is a change in schedule or change in assignment. Upholders want to follow the rules and expectations, but do they challenge them? Some of my students really struggle with the Activism Research Project we do in the Spring because they are given a choice regarding their topic, and then they get to choose how to conduct their inquiry. Perhaps, I need to understand that my Upholders will struggle with these freedoms and need the structure provided on similar lessons.




We have all had a student who has their hand in the air to ask questions. I love when Gretchen Rubin uses the example of the student who is a Questioner regarding doing an assignment. The student asks, “why should I listen to you, anyway?” (76). This was me in middle school and high school. Questioners question everything behind the outside motive, and they determine who and why they respect people in authority situations. This is the student that has to figure us out first before they choose to buy what we are selling. I feel like this may come across like a noncompliant student at times, but they are simply putting us to a test to see if we will care, if we will be consistent, and if we will do what we say we will do. 

Questioners often are some of the loudest voices in the room…or some of the softest. Rubin goes on to say that “Teachers and professors may be enthusiastic about a Questioner’s probing questions because it pushes class discussion forward and shows student’s engagement. Or they may become exasperated, if, in their judgment, the Questioner slows down discussion too much, challenges their authority, argues against or refuses to complete assignments, or misdirects the energy of the class” (91). I have had more than a time or two when I have been frustrated with a a Questioner. Remembering that these students are looking for rationalization and justification are key to providing ease in the classroom. 




This type of student wants to be accountable. At my middle school, when we have a child who is resistant to expectations we may instill a check-sheet for accountability or a pink card. This is a system of “yes” or “no” if the student met the expectations in class. If so, they receive a positive reward. I feel like the students who respond the best to positive rewards and extrinsic rewards are what Rubin describes as Obligers. Rubin goes on to say “If an Obliger child wants to meet an inner expectation, parents should help him or her to figure out a system of external accountability to reinforce follow-through” (147). Therefore, it is important to keep the idea of helping the student learn what makes them happy and how to get it is just as important as meeting the outer expectations. They want the approval of adults in the room, but they may not know how to go about making decisions on their own and figuring out how to align those two expectations. I have always struggled with the idea of a behavior plan because there is never a plan for getting off of the behavior plan. Many Obligers need the plan for the longterm, but how do we teach them to meet expectations without this particular method of accountability?




We might think we have multiple Rebels in our classroom who are noncompliant when it comes to expectations and directions. However, considering the data that Rubin puts forth in her book, it may not be so. We are too quick to put students into that category before we analyze the reasons behind their motivation. Rubin goes on to outline that when Rebels are given an expectation, “Rebels respond best to a sequence of information, consequences, and choice. We must give Rebels the information they need to make an informed decision; alert them to the consequences of actions they might take; then allow them to choose-with no lecturing, hovering, or hectoring” (167). This follows our behavior process exactly. We use the Responsible Thinking Process or RTP and ask the students the following questions:

1. “What are you doing?”

2. “What are the rules?”

3. “What happens when you break the rules?”

4. “Is this what you want to happen?”

5. “Where do you want to be?” or “What do you want to do now?”

6. “What will happen if you disrupt again?” (How the RTP Process Works).

This system is designed with Rubin’s sequence in mind. We give them information, we provide consequences, and we let them decide what they would like to do. I am wondering how the questions now work with other tendencies as well. Does the sequence provided by Rubin work with all tendencies? At times, I feel like my own personal implementation of the system can seem arbitrary or not needed if I am working with another type or tendency of a student. However, almost all of the behavior systems I have encountered are grounded in choice. More so, it would be interesting to see what type of behavior system works best for each tendency.

Writing Mindset Reflection: What questions do you now have about motivation and response to expectations? What tendency are you?