The Secret behind Student Motivation

Last Tuesday, Educational Connections partnered with Fairfax High School, in Fairfax, Virginia to put on a workshop for students10391393_10152296825017771_40792994142376188_n entitled “Academic Skills for College Success.” The presentation was targeted towards students of Fairfax County’s College Partner Program and AVID students. The audience was made up of a handful of 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students who were all smart, but struggled with different aspects of school.

As each student went around the room expressing what they viewed as their academic weaknesses, one thing became clear: even good students struggle with motivation. This wasn’t surprising to hear. At Educational Connections we work with hundreds of families all over the DC Metro area, and we hear it from parents time and time again, “I just want to get my student to care”. Motivation is one of the trickiest academic obstacles because it is a layered problem, and there is no one-size-fits all solution.

Understanding Student Motivation

To better understand what makes a student motivated, let’s look at two students, Kate and Jenny. Kate is a sophomore in high school with a 3.6 GPA. Since Kate was twelve she’s been driven to become an environmental lawyer. Kate has loaded up her schedule with honors and AP classes, membership in the school’s Model U.N. and environment club, and soccer. On the weekends, Kate and her mom volunteer with a local environmental non-profit organization. Kate’s best friend, Jenny, is a very different student. Jenny has a 3.2 GPA and has added a few honors classes to her schedule after being pressured by her mom. Her parents are always on her about getting into a good college, and it has caused a big strain on Jenny and her mom’s relationship. Jenny has joined a few clubs at school, just to get her mom off her back, but she’s really not invested in taking on leadership positions within those groups. Jenny would like to go to a good college, but she’s more focused on playing Xbox after school.

As you can tell, Kate and Jenny are very different students. Kate is clearly motivated, while Jenny’s motivation is lacking. But what makes the difference between them? Research tells us that students need three things to be motivated: a vision for the future, value for the task at hand, and a supportive environment that fosters learning.

A Roadmap for Success

Kate her eye on the ball when it comes to her future. She has a clear vision of becoming an environmental lawyer. Kate’s mom supports this vision by spending time with her daughter doing something she loves, volunteering for an environmental non-profit. Jenny’s relationship with her mom is very different. Rather than helping Jenny focus on things she loves, Jenny’s mom focuses on Jenny’s grades and potential college applications. Jenny doesn’t have a vision for the future, and thus she doesn’t value putting in the time necessary to earn better grades or take on leadership roles. This strenuous relationship is causing Jenny to be less and less invested in academics.

How to Motivate Your Child

Here’s the truth about student motivation: you cannot motivate your child. The only person who can ultimately motivate your child is your child. However, as a parent or a teacher you can make the environment ripe for motivation, by investigating your student’s interests and helping him or her come up with a vision for the future.

Student at his deskLast spring at a parent workshop on the topic of student motivation, Ann gave parents this advice: the most important thing you can do to help your child be motivated is invest in his or her interests and praise your child for his or her strengths. Immediately a mom’s hand shot up. When Ann asked her if she had a question she quickly protested, “I want my child to be successful and have a good job; I don’t see where a Love of Call of Duty plays into that.”

The mom may have sounded harsh, but she voiced the concerns of a lot of type a parents. I get it. When you think of hours spent on Xbox, you don’t necessarily think: this kid is going to be a valedictorian, and maybe he’s not going to be the valedictorian, but opening the dialogue about why he likes the game (is he interested in all video games or that one in particular? Does the art of war interest him or does he view it from a strategic standpoint), you can get a better sense of what interests your child.

In the end, opening the dialogue with your child about what interests him or her is the best thing a parent can do to foster motivation. From there, encourage your child to pursue clubs and activities in that area, as Kate did with the environmental club and volunteering. By helping your child discover his or her passion, you can spark motivation that is linked to a life-long goal. That’s the secret behind student motivation.

To read other blogs on student motivation such as, Why Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, check out