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How to Do School When Motivation Has Gone Missing

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Should adults be cheerleaders for our teenagers? Opinion is split. Some researchers contend that praise helps to cultivate intrinsic motivation, while others say that it undermines it by introducing an extrinsic reward. There is, however, an area of consensus: the utility of praise depends on how it’s done. Specifically, praise fosters intrinsic motivation when it’s sincere, celebrates effort rather than talent (“you worked really hard,” vs. “you’re so smart”) and communicates encouragement, not pressure (“you’re doing really well,” vs. “you’re doing really well, as I hoped you would”).

This is such a hard year. So long as we do it right, there’s no reason for adults to be stingy with praise.

Finally, intrinsic motivation is all but impossible to muster for material that feels out of reach. Teachers and parents should keep a close eye for students who are checking out because they feel lost and work to recalibrate the material or the expectations.

Let’s be honest: Hard-working, conscientious adults often rely on extrinsic motivators — even when they love their work. Engaging work might be its own reward much of the time, but sometimes we keep our noses to the grindstone only by holding out the incentive of a cup of coffee, some chocolate, a vanquished to-do list, or all of the above. Adults often have refined strategies for getting through our work and, as a first step, we should talk openly with teenagers about the tactics we employ when intrinsic motivation isn’t happening.

Also, teens and parents can think together about strategies to help face down a long list of assignments. Would it help to have a parent work quietly nearby in silent solidarity? Would the teenager like to study in 25-minute intervals followed by five-minute breaks to stretch, snack or check social media? Might the promise of getting to pick the weekend family movie make that last bit of work more bearable?

Adults should be ready to stand back and admire the fantastic solutions that young people land upon themselves. Some adolescents buckle down with the help of a YouTube study buddy, others hold out the carrot of a video game or run once the work is done.

I recently learned of a 10th-grader who makes time-lapse videos of herself while she does her homework. Knowing that she’s on camera keeps her focused, and having a record of her efforts (and the amusing faces she makes while concentrating) turns out to be a powerful reward. While intrinsic motivation has its upsides, there should be no shame in the external motivation game. It’s about getting the work done.


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