How to Motivate a Reluctant Student

Motivated Student

Motivating a Reluctant Student

One of the biggest challenges we face is motivating students who are not necessarily motivated to begin with. There are numerous theories on motivation in the educational psychology realm. One of my favorites that I think helps explain the difficulty with motivation is intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Understanding these two types of motivation can give good insight into your student’s troubles.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the motivation that drives us to do things simply because we want to do them or enjoy the process. Taking a walk on a gorgeous Sunday morning, playing basketball with your best friends, or staying up late to read your favorite novel are all activities driven mainly by intrinsic motivation. We do these activities because they bring us genuine joy, and we do them regardless of a reward. We will likely continue to do them in the future because we like them so much.

Intrinsic motivation has been strongly associated with many positive academic outcomes from increased grades to better behavior and positive social relationships. Simply put: students with intrinsic motivation tend to perform better in school.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is motivation that is governed by outside influences. The first example that comes to mind is rewarding a student with $100 for every “A” she earns on her report card. Other examples can include rewards of video games, candy, or a later curfew. This type of reward system can provide immediate results, but their long-term effects are questionable at best. Students who typically rely on outside influences as their source of motivation are usually the ones who perform inconsistently.

Because it’s relatively easy to provide external rewards, parents and teachers rely on them to help shape their students’ habits. The vast majority of research, however, shows that this reward system has negative effects on students’ performance, behavior and effort, particularly in the long run.

What to Do?

Now that you can see the benefits of intrinsic motivation, we must focus on promoting it. Take for example the student who “hates” math. How do you get that student intrinsically motivated for the subject he despises and gives him the most trouble? There really is not an easy answer for this. Unlike extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation is a process that takes time. For some students it comes naturally and easily while others never quite grasp it. The following steps can help your student become intrinsically motivated.

1.  Set realistic expectations – we cannot all be good at everything. To expect a student who struggles with math to earn A’s in all his math classes is unfair. It’s ok to acknowledge a student’s weaknesses and set realistic expectations for those subjects in which he struggles. This will help students from becoming discouraged, which is detrimental to intrinsic motivation.

2.  Focus on the process, not the result – putting pressure on students to earn A’s is a natural form of extrinsic motivation. To promote intrinsic motivation we need to help students during the process that leads up to the assessment. Learning to study more effectively and efficiently will lead to greater intrinsic motivation to succeed. The natural result will most likely be higher grades.

3.  Give praise, not rewards – when your student does perform well, make sure to tell him how proud you are. Rewarding him with praise will reinforce his intrinsic motivation and help build confidence. This confidence is essential; you do things you love because you expect to be good at them. External rewards, on the other hand, will quickly lose their value and thus effectiveness. With external rewards you run the risk of having to provide one any time you want your student to do well. This is not a sustainable way to work.

Motivating a reluctant student is by no means an easy task. It involves changing the student’s thought process and belief that he or she can be successful. Parents and mentors can help facilitate this process by identifying the student’s strengths and weaknesses and providing encouraging feedback. The natural result will be a student who understands the learning process and can adjust his plan no matter the subject.