“I’m tired. I’ll do it later.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“It’s not such a big deal!”
“I’m going to my friend’s now, but I’ll do it as soon as I get back!”
If these excuses sound familiar to you, chances are you have a student at home who finds it hard to motivate themselves to study or do their homework. Motivation is an important driver of academic success – children who are more motivated to study tend to have better grades . Since we commonly address motivation with our clients in both our coaching and tutoring domains, we have some suggestions to share with you. So, here are four ways you can boost your student’s motivation!
1. Choose your words
Some students lack the motivation to do their school assignments because they’re afraid of failing. This could be due to a variety of factors; previous negative experiences, or different types of anxiety, such as test anxiety. Whatever the reason, one thing you can do to help them feel less afraid is paying attention to the words you use to describe their successes .
We often tend to identify students by their talents or efforts, so we say things like: “You’re such a good singer!” or “You’re so good at math!” It might not sound bad – and really, it isn’t! – but by saying these things, we unintentionally put a lot of pressure on students . We often believe (and children do, too) that talent equals success. So what happens if a child who’s constantly being told they are incredibly talented at something, fails a test? They might start thinking something along the lines of: “If I’m so good at math, why did I fail this test? What does that make me? It makes me a failure, too, doesn’t it?”
The belief that they must succeed since they’re so “talented” creates fear. They might get scared that they’re not talented after all, which could lead them to believe they’re not worth much.
This is why you should praise their efforts and outcomes instead of their talents . Teach them that success requires effort, and that sometimes even that will not be enough – we all need some luck here and there! You can say, for example: “You did such a good job on your math test!” . This lets them know that they are neither their successes nor their failures; they are simply people with their ups and downs. With the right choice of words, their fear of failing will not be so debilitating, their reactions will be less emotional, and their motivation to improve will not be as affected.
2. Interests and rewards
There are two main factors that ultimately determine grades: ability and effort . Both can be affected by a lack of motivation, but in order to work on that, we need to understand which of the two is problematic for the student in question .
Students can have both the ability and put in the right amount of effort into a certain subject, or they could have just one and lack the other. For example, one student could be a physics whiz and yet lack the motivation to put in the necessary effort. Chances are they are simply not interested in it . They might think it’s boring and would much rather be outside going for a run or inside learning Japanese, if that’s what really interests them. In order to help them, we need to make a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation . Intrinsic motivation goes hand in hand with interests: it means that simply doing an activity like running or learning Japanese may make someone happy, regardless of consequences or any rewards. But in case your student is lacking this in some subjects, don’t worry!
Extrinsic motivation is the exact opposite: it’s when we do something well because we’re expecting a reward, not because it interests us. Now, having your child do well at school because they’re about to get something from you is not ideal, but it could be a start, because extrinsic motivation can turn into intrinsic motivation somewhere down the line. We’ll talk about that, too.
Of course, you should be cautious about rewarding them every time they do well on a test or complete an assignment! They’ll soon get used to the rewards and they’ll lose their appeal, so you should only resort to this tactic occasionally. That way, they’ll never be sure whether a reward is coming, so they’re more likely to do their best each time. Rewards should also follow soon after the achievement, and they don’t have to be something expensive or time-consuming: their favorite dinner or moving bed time an hour could do the trick. You just have to figure out what is most appealing to your student. For some students, grades themselves or even simple praise from you will be enough . And think about rewarding their efforts as well, not only their achievements. This will let them know how much you appreciate that they’re giving their best!
3. Understanding mistakes
We mentioned before that both ability and effort determine grades . So what if your student is really willing to put in the necessary effort, but they simply “don’t get” math? Although “practice makes perfect” and “hard work pays off” are phrases we’re all familiar with, if they try their best but don’t see results, giving up might, unfortunately, start to seem like a valid option. Your student might start thinking: “Why should I be wasting so much time to just get another C? I can do that without all that effort!”
The first thing to do is talk to their teacher – and bring your child with you! This should be an open discussion that will show them you care about them and want to support them. Also, by having them there, you send a message that you believe they’re mature and smart enough to work on their own issues. Find out what’s most troubling for them: is it that they can’t remember the right formula? Or do they do everything right, but at the very end, their attention falters and they make a silly mistake that costs them a grade? Understanding one’s mistakes is the first step towards fixing them.
After you’ve found out what’s troubling your student, you can work on helping them, and they can work on it, too. Once they get the hang of it and start seeing results, they should be more motivated to learn and perform well.
However, each of these problems (memory, attention) requires a different approach, and you can decide whether you want to tackle it yourself or enlist the help of a tutor. There are a few things that could determine whether you might need outside help. For example, you could ask yourself: “How well do I know the subject matter? Do I know it well enough to teach it in a different manner? Is it a short-term challenge (such as long division) or a long-term one (no “head” for math)?” And last, but not least: “Will my persistent efforts hurt the relationship I have with my child?” After you’ve answered all these questions, you can decide whether you might need the help of a tutor.
4. Build situational interest
As previously mentioned, students can be internally or externally motivated to do something. And although being motivated externally is still better than not being motivated at all, ideally, that external motivation should at least in part translate into internal motivation. We do this through what is called situational interest . Even though your student might not be interested in computer science per se, presenting it in a new light (for example, creating a learning environment that appeals to them) could spark their interest in it .
One way to do this, especially with younger students, is by creating a text, or even a presentation, on the topic they’re currently learning . Say they are supposed to be learning about the environment, but they believe that it’s just so boring! You could take a look at their textbook and, instead of teaching them fact after fact, you make a story out of it. It could be a story about a young girl who was one day visited by a wizard who gave her a great task – to save the planet! He left her a sheet with the instructions that said: 1. conserve the water; 2. plant trees; 3. shut down some factories… and so on. Things that appeal to young students in these stories are the element of surprise, vividness, intensity, and ease of understanding . Of course, you should introduce the facts, too; but they’ll be much more likely to remember them if they are a part of an epic story!
This approach should prove useful not just as they are studying for their tests, but while they’re growing up, as well. If they internalize this way of learning and eventually start using it on their own, they’ll find it easier to deal with tougher subjects and the more complex information to come!
When it comes to older students, if you notice they’re struggling with a certain topic, try to find an interesting movie (documentary or otherwise), a TV show – or a book, if they enjoy reading – on the topic. It’s important to get them involved. Once they find themselves even slightly interested in their assignment, they’ll be more likely to put in the effort and finish it on time!
We hope you find these tips helpful! If you find you need some additional help making them work, Nobel coaches and tutors are always here to help you out!
1. Cimpian, A., Arce, H., Markman, E., & Dweck, C. (2006). Subtle Linguistic Cues Affect Children’s Motivation. Psychological Science, Vol. 18, No.4. pp. 314–316.
2. Hidi, S., & Harackiewicz, J. (2000). Motivating the Academically Unmotivated: A Critical Issue for the 21st Century. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 70, No.2. pp. 151-179.
3. Kindermann, T. (1993). Natural Peer Groups as Contexts for Individual Development: The Case of Children’s Motivation in School. Developmental Psychology, Vol. 29, No.6, pp. 970-977.