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We Have to Stop Measuring Students by “Motivation”

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Motivation—we throw this word around so often. 

Some days we wake up motivated to power-clean the house. Some days we wake up feeling unmotivated and unready to work. When we feel unmotivated, we beat ourselves up about it. What was so different about the previous day? Why did we feel excited to get work done then, but not now?

Because, being motivated is not a personality trait. It’s an emotion. 

We can’t fairly categorize kids (or ourselves) as permanently unmotivated or motivated. Motivation is a fleeting feeling. I can walk out of a meeting feeling motivated to start a project, and the following day when it’s time to actually begin the work, I’ve lost all that momentum and I get frustrated with myself for the “change of heart.” It’s easy to get down on yourself. People look ahead to their goals, and feel overwhelmed by the concept of the end results that could be achieved if only they were more motivated. But that’s not fair. We can’t get frustrated with someone when they’re sad, and motivation is no different. And we can’t get too frustrated with ourselves, or our students, for motivation that seemingly disappears. There’s something deeper that sparks feelings like motivation, or an issue that causes a lack thereof. What we can do, however, is set ourselves up better to succeed, and figure out what small steps we can take to gain ground in achieving our end goal: whether it’s a project, assignment, or an overwhelming amount of laundry. 

Discipline, routines, and accountability are responsible for our work getting done. In the words of our friend and Boulder counselor, Nick Thompson, “people aren’t more motivated than you, they just have better routines.” When we have strong routines, there’s less of a will-power battle. We know what’s expected, and we condition ourselves to remove that internal fight and just do whatever it is we need to do. As adults, it can feel ridiculous when students decide to flip tables and stop doing expected things that were previously non-issues. We don’t always understand why they’ve made that decision, and why it feels impossible to get them back to their previous mindsets. View it from the perspective of you falling out of your workout schedule—it seems incredibly simple from the outside, but we all know there’s an inner battle going on that’s accompanied by a lot of solvable guilt. Taking away the physical structure of school and the routine of going to class in person has removed one huge consistency we all took for granted until March. That basically opened a trap-door for students to fall into. They probably didn’t jump down intentionally, but it can be really hard to pull them back up and out of the hole.

So, we’re left with routines and accountability. They go hand in hand—if students aren’t ready or able to hold themselves accountable to following routines, parents (and mentors!) get to step in and support them. I say “support,” but we know that often just means “fight about procrastination” etc. for families. For mentors, accountability “support” looks like a discussion to find out what drives them. As parents and mentors, we know our students, and we need to shed our frustration in order to have a productive conversation with them. If school doesn’t inspire them, what does? Sports? Successful athletes are incredibly disciplined, and maybe that’s the element that needs to be brought into the discussion. Encourage your student to take an athlete mentality into school and see what happens. Support them with the shift, and make sure they know you’re always on their team—even if (when) they slip up.

Motivation and anxiety have something big in common—both terms are overused. Instead of describing a student simply as “motivated,” be more specific. Are they goal-oriented? Are they driven? Are they hardworking and it pays off? We use anxiety too frequently as well. It’s too broad of a term to accurately describe what’s happening. Are you stressed about an upcoming deadline for a project you’ve procrastinated on? Are you overwhelmed by your workload in general? Are you apprehensive about meeting the family of a significant other? Too often, we categorize those occurrences as “feeling anxious.” It’s not untrue, but there are better ways to phrase it. Which brings us back to motivation: there are better ways to phrase that. We have to find the more specific issue that is preventing a student from being productive and focus on solving that problem. 

The most common type of email we’ve been seeing this fall is from a panicked parent saying, “Remote learning has been a nightmare because my kid is so unmotivated to go to class and do any work.” First off, you’re not alone. This is a nationwide issue, and students with executive function challenges are affected by this more than many. But let’s chat about your student. What’s the part that’s frustrating them the most about remote learning? Is it not seeing big friend groups? Is it feeling misunderstood by teachers? Is it an intangible feeling of dread regarding global health, but they don’t quite know how to put that into words? One step at a time, figure out how to build up that “motivation” again by uncovering and addressing the more specific, underlying concerns. With no pandemic to blame, at one point in high school, I decided that Algebra 2 was feeling like more work than I wanted to put in. After years of zero missing assignments, I just decided to stop doing math homework for a few weeks. This was unprecedented in my academic career, and my mom found out because she ran into my math teacher at Safeway (Boulder is small), and my teacher expressed her concerns regarding the quantity of my missing homework assignments. What my mom quickly realized, after bringing that conversation home to me, was that math had gotten more fast-paced and I was lost. Once I slowly figured that out for myself (with some prodding from my parents and FAR more supervised homework sessions at the kitchen table), I was able to spend a few lunch periods with my teacher, catching up and getting back to where I needed to be. I wasn’t struggling with doing homework because I was unmotivated, I was struggling because I was encountering topics that were really hard for me, and I hadn’t felt that overwhelmed by new content before. I was embarrassed that I didn’t understand what we were learning; my defense mechanism of choice was total avoidance.

So, let’s stop referring to kids as motivated or unmotivated. Parents and mentors can work as a team to figure out what the underlying issues are with seemingly “unmotivated” students. We have to continue holding them accountable, but that goes beyond threatening them with less screen time if they don’t complete all of their assignments. That means supporting the routines we can encourage or control. That means before we get mad, we pause and look for underlying reasons to help us understand why they’re not following through on schoolwork. Overall, we have to stop using the idea of motivation as a measurement that contributes to student success. If kids keep hearing adults tell them that they’re not motivated, and how frustrating that is, it rarely has the desired effect of inspiring them to focus more on their schoolwork. And remember: just because they’re having a semester where they refuse to do homework does not mean they have no hope of growing up to be wonderful, driven adults.