Students are born motivated to learn

They’re motivated to touch, to taste, to crawl, to explore, to put things in their mouth. They’re always learning.

Then they start school. What happens to their motivation? For some children, motivation starts to dissipate as early as kindergarten. Kindergarten teachers claim that they are getting more and more troubled and struggling students in their classrooms.

By the time they’re teenagers, student motivation is way down – no matter how enthusiastically they started school. Teachers lament, “We can’t get students to even care.”

What do we know about motivation? What causes it? What causes students to act? What drive their motivation?

Student Motivation Research

Years ago, I attended a conference based on the work of Dr. Ruby Payne. Her research indicated that most children of poverty, especially generational poverty, grow up believing in destiny. They believe there’s no escape from the poverty they are born into. That’s their life. That’s all they have. That’s all they will have.

student motivation

Formal student motivation research, coupled with my extensive experience teaching at multiple grade levels, raising my children, consulting with schools in a variety of demographics, listening to teacher stories, working with students’ stories, teaching anger management, and all the reading I’ve done, I’ve come to look at it this way: Lack of motivation in students is about personal power.

Whether we call it resilience, self-regulation, or determination, essentially, it’s about personal power. 

“Students have personal power when they have the resources, the opportunity, and the capability to be in control of their destiny.” 

For example, why would Manuel, a student in my anger management program, be motivated to pass a test if he believes: 

  • he was born angry
  • he’s stupid 
  • he is destined for prison 

What could possibly motivate him?

He explained, “There’s no point in me taking this stupid anger management program. It’ll do no good. I’m just going to jail anyway. That’s where my uncle ended up. Anger runs in my family.”

Who knows how many other relatives and friends of Manuel’s ended up in that same situation? Why would he care? Why would he think there was any possibility that he could improve his life? He’s not motivated because he feels he has no control over his own destiny. 

If students don’t feel they have an opportunity to change their lives, if they feel they are destined to live their life in the same circumstances they currently experience, they are not going to be motivated.

Student motivation quotes

These student motivation strategies aren’t tangible. There’s no workbook to buy. There’s no individualized software program to implement. The secret to motivating students lies in the words we speak – the quotes we use. The solution is all about how we talk to children to support changing mindsets.

Carol Dweck calls it going from a fixed mindset: The belief that “I can’t change my life. This is my destiny,” to a growth mindset: “Yes, I have control over my life and I can learn. I’m just not there yet.”

The first and fastest way to encourage students and help improve their motivation is through how we speak to them. It’s incredibly important. A student who’s struggling and thinks they’re a failure needs to be shown that they’re good at some things, and that they can succeed.

Here are three effective student motivation quotes you can use to help increase student’s personal power:

“I’m proud of the way you worked today. You showed (persistence, excellent problem solving skills, etc) to accomplish __________.”

“When you use __________ (a specific strategy – a mind map, flash cards, color coding, etc.) you succeed. Always use _____________ strategy when you have to learn something. That’s *your* secret learning weapon.” 

“I’m proud of you for taking ownership of your learning. You chose to do _________ (the approach or strategy they used)  to _____________ (complete this assignment, study for the quiz, etc.) That’s way better than telling yourself you can’t do it.”

Now, there are tons more positive things you can say besides these three things, and you can find many of them in this blog. The key is to encourage students and notice the work they’ve done to take ownership of their learning. Even if they’re struggling with an assignment, find something that they’re doing well and tell them what they’re doing right.

Even small choices motivate and empower students

student motivation

Twenty years ago, educators had much more latitude in how they taught their classes. We had a curriculum to teach, but we created our own lesson plans and were trusted to use our skills as professionals to successfully educate our students. We had the latitude to try a variety of teaching methods to help struggling students.

Educators today are limited in how much leeway they can provide students. Sometimes, teachers are severely restricted in how creative they can be in their own classrooms. Many are working with a scripted program on a tight schedule.

But one of the most empowering things you can offer a student is choice. Even if it’s a choice in where they sit for part of the class, or what topic they get to write about, or the order in which they complete an assignment. Who says they have to start at number one? Many authors don’t start a writing project with an introductory sentence. Many, like me, start in the middle.

By giving students choice, we not only give them more control in their life – we can also observe how students learn and help them to discover the learning method that works best for them.

Teach students to choose strategies and tools that help them to be successful. Teach them that they have control over their destiny. Use language that fosters their sense of personal power by teaching them how THEY learn so they experience success.


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