How to Motivate Students in PE Through Proven Instructional Models

“How do I get my students motivated?” This question is one that many physical education teachers frequently ask themselves. Gaining and maintaining student motivation in PE can seem like a major barrier, particularly for teachers in middle school and high school.

Although getting students to participate and be engaged can seem elusive, teachers can take steps to enhance the learning environment and to be more motivating. This process should start with questions like, “What am I teaching?” and “How am I teaching it?”

While we know PE content should be selected based on state standards and SHAPE America’s National Standards for K-12 Physical Education (answering the “what” question), sometimes the “how” can be a little trickier.

Using Proven Instructional Models

Two instructional models widely accepted in our field to increase student motivation, learning, and attitudes toward physical activity, fitness, and sport are the Sport Education (SE) model and the Cooperative Learning (CL) model.

One important note about these techniques is that they are driven by empirical evidence in research and practice over the last 20-30 years. Yet, we still often see traditional direct methods of PE delivery dominate our field. This point cannot be underscored enough.

It can be easy for teachers to rely on anecdotal experience for what works best. However, it’s important to acknowledge these systems are not working for the most part and we are not reaching our intended goals, as a field, using traditional direct styles of instruction and content development.

We do have evidence that Sport Education and Cooperative Learning strategies provide optimally supportive learning environments for students that prioritize physical, cognitive and affective learning.

This point on addressing all three learning domains deserves one important note. Students are most motivated when they feel competent, autonomous and supported. Group learning strategies and roles associated with the Sport Education and Cooperative Learning models provide ideal situations for teachers to not only target physical learning, but to prioritize providing the students progressively more autonomy in the PE environment, more decision-making, and collaboration to solve problems together as a group as opposed to solving teacher-centered problems in isolation.

Thus, the cognitive and affective sides of learning in PE directly impact student motivation and must be targeted, as they often are with evidence-based best practices.

In our article (“Enhance Student Motivation and Social Skills: Adopting the Sport Education and Cooperative Learning Models”) in the October 2020 issue of JOPERD, we review the essential components of the Sport Education and Cooperative Learning models and include recommendations for resources and professional development, as well as steps to getting started.

JOPERD cover image

Sport Education Model

  • Sport Education is founded on offering the “team sporting” experience for all students regardless of physical and athletic ability.
  • Students experience in-depth “seasons” (i.e., units) that target both skills and tactical decision-making in different games and lifetime activities.
  • Every student is placed on a mixed-grouping team and each student holds both playing and non-playing roles (i.e., player and coach; player and equipment manager).
  • The teacher isolates both game development and role development; students are rewarded for completing roles to a high degree and contributing to teammate improvement.
  • The teacher takes an indirect style progressively, over the unit, and allows students to run practices, games, team collaboration and conflict resolution opportunities.
  • Overall end goal: students who are competent, literate and enthusiastic with game/activity.
  • Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Sport Education model is not a traditional model for teaching sports skills and having game play. Also, this model is not limited to only traditional team sports. Lastly, students do not have to be experts in the skills of the game/activity before offering a unit with this model.
Students playing basketball

Cooperative Learning Model

  • Cooperative Learning is founded in three goals which include fostering academic cooperation, encouraging positive relationships, and enhancing academic learning and development.
  • The model targets learning goals that require group interaction, discussion, interdependence among students, and individual/group responsibility.
  • Cooperative Learning is often embedded in many models, including Sport Education, targeting group processing of information and focusing on students developing small group collaboration.
  • Cooperative Learning includes prioritized process and performance goals; groups are rewarded for going through the steps as well as for completing the tasks cooperatively.
  • The teacher makes intentional and systematic plans to teach cooperative, collaborative, and problem-solving skills to students and then allow opportunities for students to practice.
  • The teacher provides greater student choice and voice by offering options and allowing students to make decisions, which leads to more ownership of learning and student accountability.
  • Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Cooperative Learning model is more than simply placing students in a group or assuming that if students are in a group they will “learn responsibility”. In addition, the model can be used to teach both cooperative or competitive tasks.
PD Resource Suggestions Chart

Professional Development Resources

All teachers should strive to offer great learning opportunities for their students; however, students’ needs, interests and learning abilities change and vary. Teachers who adopt the mindset of being a lifelong continuous learner will be able to continue to adapt and meet student needs.

Ongoing professional development for PE can be challenging with limited in-school targeted sessions or knowledge. Sometimes, it can feel easier to say, “The way I’m doing it now is fine.” However, quality professional development doesn’t only help with a teacher’s professional disposition, it is an investment in your students’ experience. Change can be scary and difficult, but when you have evidence, guidance and motivation, you’re likely to build a better program for students.

Here is a list of resources and suggestions for teachers:

  • Professional Texts: Although reading these books may seem like “going back to school,” these texts provide a step-by-step road map for implementation and they often have lessons, units and web resources!
  • Practitioner Examples: The advantages of journals like JOPERD and Strategies is that in-service teachers and teacher educators often publish work on “how to” implement stages and offer many examples right from the classroom!
  • Online Resources: Any quality professional development work online should target models, evidence and best practices. Avoid online work targeting one-off activities and games with limited sequential learning goals. PE is more than simply getting kids active, and models like Sport Education and Cooperative Learning offer activity, learning and motivation that transfers to real life!
  • University Teacher Education Programs and Learning Communities: If you’re reading this, you’re showing an initiative to learn and improve and there are many of you out there! Consider the university and K-12 personnel in your community and those who publish articles (like you’re reading now) and reach out!

Suggestions for Getting Started

Picture a physical education class where most of the students show engagement and motivation, contribute to the tasks, support one another, and are well-behaved. If that is your goal and you are ready to try new instructional techniques using the Sport Education model or Cooperative Learning model, we suggest the following:

  1. Use articles and research like this to weigh the benefits of using a student-centered approach and pick an evidence-based model you think works best for your students.
  2. Do not be concerned with not knowing what to do! Models come with instructions and a framework so you can build a knowledge framework and planning materials to help you get started. This is your map and learning the model will take a little time and practice.
  3. Build a professional network. Reach out to university PETE programs for partnership. Doing this will benefit both parties in terms of offering quality PE, using best practices, and researching what is working! All jobs take continual upkeep; find other teachers in your district or field who have the same passions and learn together (relatedness motivation, just like our students!).
  4. Don’t expect instant success and don’t try to implement everything all at once! Students have likely been conditioned to direct styles of PE and non-learning outcomes for many years now. Start with a new batch of students and start with 1-2 classes at a time. You’re learning as it happens too, so give yourself time to reflect and ask questions.

Additional Resources

Angelo Montoya

Angelo Montoya is a high school physical education and health teacher at Pojoaque Valley High School in Santa Fe, NM. He is a level II teacher, department head, and has been teaching high school for 12 years. He is currently in the final year of his graduate program at the University of New Mexico where he will receive his Master of Science in physical education with a concentration in curriculum and instruction in spring 2021.

Kelly Simonton

Kelly L. Simonton is an assistant professor of physical education teacher education at the University of Memphis. He teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses on curriculum models and instructional strategies in PE targeting secondary school settings. Additionally, he focuses on research regarding student and teacher motivation and emotion in K-12 PE. His contact is

Karen Gaudreault

Karen L. Gaudreault, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in Physical Education Teacher Education at the University of New Mexico, with specific expertise in elementary PE pedagogy and content. Her research involves teacher socialization, schools as workplaces, and how the structure of schools impacts teachers’ agency and how teaching a marginalized subject impacts physical educators’ lives.