Last Updated on January 31, 2024 by Sarah McCubbin
Anyone who has ever been a teacher or homeschool parent know how hard it can be to motivate students to learn. It can be one of the greatest challenges. After all, as the saying goes, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” A teacher can have great content and great presentation skills, but often times there are STILL students that are not motivated to learn.
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Parents may find that within their own family, some of their children are very motivated to study and learn and others are not. It is the same environment for all the children, but not all have the same drive to do schoolwork or to learn.
Of course, there is no magic formula for motivation. But as parents and teachers, there are some really important things we can do to help ensure our students are successful.
But first, let’s look at the kinds of motivation.
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The 2 Types of Motivation
There are essentially 2 types of motivation…the kind that comes from within a person (intrinsic) and the kind that comes from outside (extrinsic)
Intrinsic Motivation – A student is motivated from within
Several of my children are very self-motivated. They always have been. My son Flynn is motivated toward academic excellence, because he enjoys pushing himself and seeing if he can improve his own score. In some ways, I would say it’s like his own game…with him trying to one-up himself. If I were to offer him a reward to improve his performance, it would make no difference at all. He studies and improves himself because he enjoys it.
On the other hand, especially when they are younger, many of my kids definitely want that outside motivation. If I wanted them to sit and do schoolwork, I might say, “You need to do your schoolwork, and then you can play video games.” Or” When you get these dishes done, then you may have dessert.”
This is motivation form an outside source…or “extrinsic motivation.”
I call extrinsic motivation, “dangling a carrot.” You hold that reward out in front…reminding them of it…as a way to motivate them to learn or get a task done.
There is nothing wrong with either form of motivation. Sometimes we all need a push to get something done. But, when a person is self-motivated, they become like a self-propelled engine and no longer rely on the energy of others to nudge them forward. As a parent, my goal is for all my children to be self-motivated adults. At the end of the day, the people around us only have so much energy to keep pushing us along. Eventually, people get tired of dangling carrots!!
How Are Students Motivated to Learn?
A group of Canadian and Australian researchers has set out to study motivation in students. The work has been ongoing with updates to the study as more research is done. But so far the work has some key takeaways.
- Persistence & Well-being are the 2 types of internal motivation that lead to the greatest success academically.
- Outside rewards & punishments are the least beneficial for students and lead to the least amount of well-being
Based on this, as parents and educators, we want to figure out how to foster persistence & well-being in our students.
According to a 2020 article in Contemporary Educational Psychology titled Motivation & Social Cognitive Theory, the authors Schunk and DiBenedetto, assert that intrinsic student motivation is built on 3 factors: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. What does that really mean in layman’s terms? What are we talking about?
Motivation is Built on 3 Factors:
These same findings were confirmed by Canadian and Australian researchers who reviewed 144 studies on student motivation. When students are unmotivated, these three areas need to be addressed:
- Ownership in Learning (Autonomy)
- Feeling They Can Succeed & Grow (Competence)
- A Sense of Belonging & Connection (Relatedness)
From these 3 Factors, we can take away many practical tips to motivate students to learn
1. Allow Students to Take Ownership of their Learning
Ownership comes in many forms. It can be allowing them to choose project topics that are interesting to them. Or it might simply be giving them the tools to learn and showing them how to use them. In the homeschool world, we often talk about cultivating independent learners….especially by the time they are in middle and high school.
We want to give our students the work and have them figure out how to do most of it on their own without asking for help all the time. We want to motivate students to learn on their own which opens endless doors!
2. Give Students Responsibilities
Responsibilities give us meaningful work that benefits us and others. I remember being in elementary school and wanting the coveted “teacher’s helper” position or to be the “line leader.” At home, all my children have chores. And even in a house with a lot of kids, we can get it pretty tidy in about 30 minutes even if it’s a big mess to start with.
They all have jobs and they know how to do them. And we all work together to clean up…if my friends are coming over…or if their friends are coming over. We extend that courtesy both ways.
3. Allow them to “teach” what they learn to others
I find that this is SO VALUABLE in helping students feel successful and competent. If you are able to teach others about what you are learning, you have to master it for yourself. It also develops their confidence when they learn to articulate what they have learned which is helpful in other contexts outside of the classroom.
4. Use all the senses to learn
I’m a very visual learner. I like graphs and pictures and words on a page. I’m also hands-on. So when I am in an environment where someone just talks and talks and talks… it’s hard for me to learn because processing auditory without the visual or hands-on just doesn’t make as much sense to me. As a teacher, I know that all students do not learn the same. So incorporating as many senses as possible will help all students connect with the material.
5. Encourage them with tangible specific praise
My son Elliott is 11…almost 12. He is definitely a pre-teen right now. At this age, we are really trying to teach our kids to do a job and do it well. So the other day, we were outside in the heat pulling weeds in a flower bed. We were going to pull the weeds and then put down mulch.
He and my other son Abel were working on separate beds. Both were doing well, but I turned to Elliott and said, “You are doing a great job getting all these weeds out. This bed looks really good.” This is a child that never stops talking, but he stopped talking. The praise was specific and appropriate. We all need clear feedback.
6. Learn With Them Through Success & Failure
Our kids will begin to feel confident and motivated when they realize that they “win” whether they succeed or fail. It is important to teach kids what they are learning when they succeed and when they fail. And honestly, failure can be a better teacher than succeeding. If we can help our kids see what they learn when they fail, they will always be learning.
Years ago, my oldest son was on a soccer team. Some plays happened in a game that he felt were very unfair. His team ended up losing, and he was having a really hard time with it. As we talked it through, we talked about how one day he would be the “coach” in a situation. He would have the opportunity to lead his team in a way that looked out for themselves…or in a way that looked out for others as well.
I promised him, “you won today if you learn this lesson. If you don’t learn it through and you just focus on losing the game and feeling bad for yourself, you did actually lose because you learned nothing that would help you in the future.”
Let’s teach our kids to learn through failure.
7. Help Students Become More Organized
Helping students organize their schoolwork, their time, and their free time helps them be in control. They are motivated when they know how to complete their responsibilities and still have time for fun!
8. Speak Life Over Them – Be Encouraging!
Proverbs 18.21 says that “the power of life and death is in the tongue.” We can motivate students to learn when we speak life over them and about them. Encourage them (even when it doesn’t look like it’s working.) Words are like seeds. We plant them and it takes time for them to grow.
9. Reward Them for Pushing Themselves
Oftentimes, our kids are unmotivated because they already have the things we might consider “rewards.” They have their screens, good food, and lots of free time. That sounds like rewards to me. We need to reverse that and give our kids those things when they complete their responsibilities. When they push themselves to get their work done or finish their chores, those are things worth rewarding!
Conversely….don’t reward them when they don’t work hard….screens can become very demotivating when they are given without expectation.
10. Connect Learning to Real Life
Learning is meaningful when it is connected to real life. I have seen SO MANY unmotivated teens become motivated when they get jobs and start paying for some of their own expenses. Why is that? The learning that is happening on the job is relevant and connected to obvious benefits.
When kids work, they understand how their skills help others. When they earn money and pay for their own expenses, they feel confident that they will be able to take care of their needs and that the work they are doing is meaningful.
If your teen is struggling with motivation, a job can open up the world for them! Here are 8 Reasons Teens Should Get a Job!
11. Allow them to study things that are interesting to them…in their own learning style
One of the things that helps connect learning to real life is studying things that are interesting to us personally. When students can study things they like, it doesn’t feel like work. Unschooling is a great homeschool method for interest-based studies. Even if you use curriculum for your regular studies, you can unschool other subjects by using books, film, field trips, mentors, jobs, and other life experiences to learn about that subject.
12. Help them meet peers who share their interests
Helping our kids have friends can be a challenge whether they are in school or homeschooled. That is because they want friends who share their same interests. We can help our kids find friends by putting them in activities or groups connected to their interests.
My kids have found their best friends through robotics teams, sports teams, youth groups, and homeschool groups. It takes trial and error, but when they have friends they are more motivated to push through some of the hard things.
Do you have a child or teen that struggles to make friends. Get our FREE e-book packed with ideas to make and keep friends.
13. Celebrate their successes…even if they are non-traditional
When our kids succeed, we need to celebrate. A celebration can be simple. It can be a note of congratulations, words out loud, a small gift, taking them out to dinner or finally getting something done for them that they have wanted. The 5 Love Languages can provide you with ideas for how your kid will feel loved and celebrated the best.
14. Take a Break From Traditional Learning if They Resent It
One of the things driving the surge in homeschooling is parents seeking out options for their students who “hate school.” For any number of reasons, their kids don’t like school anymore.
Even homeschoolers face this from time to time. In order to rekindle the love of learning, parents are choosing to deschool or use non-traditional learning. Non-traditional learning can be things like unschooling, unit studies, trade schools, working, or volunteering. And all of these can rekindle the love of learning which drives motivation.
15. Help Them Find Ways to Volunteer and Serve Others
Another way to motivate students is to get them plugged into volunteering. Volunteering may open doors to learning new things, helping people, and feeling empowered that they are valuable. Last year, my son Bennett who is 13 did some volunteering at a local science center that has Saturday classes for elementary students.
He came back from the first day glowing. He told me about all the ways he was “in charge” of things and how he helped during the day. He got a T-shirt to make him look official as a volunteer and when he did things well he was praised and thanked.
All of this built him up and made him feel really good about his contribution that day.
Volunteering also allows students to try things that might be inaccessible if they were trying to be hired…but are available as volunteers. Volunteering builds a base of relevant learning experiences which can help our kids understand that the other things they are learning is school actually do matter.
16. Help Your Kids With Social Skills
Sometimes kids struggle to connect with the world because they have poor social skills. And sometimes the adults in their life have poor social skills. Learning how to talk to people can open the world and make learning so much more fun.
17. Make Learning Fun
And last but not least, when learning is fun, it makes it easier for our brains to think creatively and problem solve. Stress shuts down the brain…but fun reverses that. Whenever possible, parents and adults should help learning to be fun which helps students develop that internal motivation we want for them!
Persistence Can Motivate Students to Learn
Oftentimes parents and educators struggle to motivate students. We have tried some things. Maybe they didn’t work and now we don’t know where to go from there. As the adults in their lives, it is our job to keep trying new ways of connecting. We believe in them until the lightbulb goes on and they believe in themselves.
Sarah McCubbin, founder of Ten Minute Momentum, is dedicated to helping parents confidently parent their kids by teaching life skills, social skills and leadership skills. As a child she was the kid that never quite fit in and is on a mission to help others understand the building blocks we all need to be successful adults. She lives in Ohio with her husband Mike, and 9 kids ranging in age from 5 to 21 where they use homeschool, private school and public schools for their kids education!