How to Unlock Students’ Internal Drive for Learning

They prefer short term satisfaction to long term.

Last few weeks of school and now it all comes down to MOTIVATION.  In many schools, students do their work because their teachers tell them to. Or because they need to do it to get a certain grade. For many students getting a good grade and outshining their peers – not learning itself – becomes the goal of the school. For other students, they need minimum grades to be on sports teams or participate in extracurricular activities or please their parents, and that becomes their motivation. Students who do their work because they’re genuinely interested in learning the material are few and far between. I have seen and heard the blame game being played. It can be no planner, on the teacher, or of course on technology or simple just blame it on the phone.

The teacher demands, the grades, the promise of additional opportunities-they’re all external rewards. Decades of research, both about educational best practice and the way the human brain works, say these types of motivators are dangerous. Offering students rewards for learning creates reliance on the reward. If they become less interesting to the student or disappear entirely, the motivation does, too.

Inspiring students’ intrinsic motivation to learn is a more effective strategy to get and keep students interested. And it’s more than that. Students actually learn better when motivated this way. They put forth more effort, tackle more challenging tasks, and end up gaining a more profound understanding of the concepts they study.

From what I have seen in education after school, both types of motivation are required. Deborah Stipek, a Standford University professor of education and author of the book, “Motivation to Learn: Theory to Practice” believes in that too.

The child wants to learn something else but teachers have to follow the curriculum. So in order to keep both going, we need both kinds of motivation going too.  The latest data from the company’s Student Poll found that 74 percent of fifth graders felt engaged, while the same was true of just 32 percent of high school juniors.



The research concludes that internal motivation requires three elements: competency, autonomy, and connection. So, where can we start? This summer let’s try to work on these things in your household.

  1. Praising effort rather than success or innate abilities. I see and hear this often. If you tell a child he or she is so smart, then it is very realistic that they could rest on their laurels then become frustrated and abandon a task that does not come easy to them. Conversely, praising them for their efforts despite the outcome will build their confidence in their ability to work hard for something that is important to them.
  2. Pointing out progress. Attention spans in young children aren’t often long so pointing out milestones they are reaching along the way can be helpful in showing them how far they’ve come. Teens like to be noticed. Small observations, acknowledgments along the way helps. Breaking large tasks into smaller parts helps kids (and I’d say adults as well) to stay focused.  Feeling successful will breed motivation to reach the next goal.
  3. Encouraging autonomy by offering choices and encouraging problem-solving. Being able to choose helped her feel empowered.  Encouraging problem solving can be tedious, especially when you can do something so much more quickly yourself, but it’s really a hugely important skill to help them develop.
  4. Having realistic expectations. We all have a hard time staying focused. We are surrounded by distractions. Staying focused and motivated all the time, would be pretty unrealistic for us to expect my children to be. We all have off days!
  5. Recognizing the good things your kids are doing and praising them on that rather than focusing in on their shortcomings. This may be my favorite! It goes hand in hand with my other favorite quote: “promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate.” Correcting poor behavior comes more naturally to a lot of us parents, but I’ve seen more benefits when we show them that we are celebrating positive actions rather than punishing bad choices.
  6. Limiting extrinsic motivators. I know this is hard.  And I don’t believe you can parent by abstaining from outside motivation completely (and don’t think it’s all bad). However, opting for celebration over a true reward can help children recognize their feelings of self-satisfaction and pride leading them to want to repeat the action (intrinsic) rather than having them focused on and motivated by the toy/treat/etc.
  7. Summertime is TRYOUT time– Let your child choose what they want to explore this summer. During the school year, they are limited due to homework, time and schedule. But there are many things they want to dig deeper and it’s a great way to figure out what they like and is interested in going forward.

My Favorite Zig Ziglar quote is -” Motivation does not last long. Neither does taking a bath. That’s why it’s recommended daily.

We at Homework In a Café, like to connect with our students, motivate them in both ways. It’s important for us to have them find their path in life by purpose provoking questions that get to the core of what matters most to them in the world.