Fostering Self-Motivation in High School Students

Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership

In order to succeed in any aspect of life, people must possess some level of intrinsic self-motivation. By its very nature, intrinsic motivation originates inside the human mind and then translates into productive physical and/or mental action. Extrinsic motivation originates outside of the human mind and may be the result of physical or environmental needs, fear of negative consequences, or the desire to please another individual.

Overwhelmingly, individuals who are intrinsically motivated to achieve academically perform better than those who are only motivated by fear of failure or as a result of external pressure from peers or family members.

Naturally, intrinsic motivation is highly beneficial for high school students; however, it seems that many students suffer from a lack of the “drive” necessary to realize academic success and end up being pulled toward graduation by their teachers as opposed to leading the charge and pursuing their education with a sense of passion and pride. The looming question for educators, then, is how to foster intrinsic self-motivation in high school students.

While there is no guaranteed method of promoting self-motivation within students, and many factors including environment, parental engagement, socio-economic status directly affect self-motivations, there are a number of strategies that teachers can employ to assist their students in taking ownership of their own success and ultimately build within themselves the desire to succeed.

Strategies for Fostering Self-Motivation

Provide Autonomy

The first step educators can take in fostering self-motivation in their high school students is to provide students with as much autonomy as possible by allowing them to have a voice in their learning process. As an example, some students work better in groups, while others are more productive when they are able to work independently. Providing students with choices for the method in which they accomplish learning goals allows them to bypass obstacles in the way of learning styles that are not effective for them. As an example, when introducing a new concept, a teacher can provide students with multiple pathways to the same goal.

Perhaps the teacher is introducing a new concept such as the sonnet form in an English class. The instructor could prepare a guided worksheet with questions related to the form but then allow students to complete the information via the modality of their choice. Some students may prefer to answer the questions while listening to a lecture. Others may prefer to simply look up the answers in a textbook. Still others may prefer to listen to music on their AirPods while looking up the information on their cell phone or another electronic device, while another may wish to work with a group of peers to locate the information.

The overall point of providing students with choices is the elimination of barriers to learning. Teacher flexibility is the key to giving students a voice in the manner in which their learning takes place. Ultimately, teachers should provide the roadmap for the material that students should learn but then permit the students to choose the manner of learning that is the most efficient for them. This concept is the first step in promoting self-motivation in high school students.

Avoid Brain Strain

A second method for promoting self-motivation is to avoid so-called brain strain resulting from excessive assignments or creating a stress-filled environment. In the past, some educators seemed to take great delight in making their classes as intimidating and difficult for students as possible.

While rigor is critical to any quality curriculum, a teacher who approaches a class by telling students that they rarely give “As” has probably already reduced the intrinsic motivation of the class by 75 percent. Course content should be shared in a manner that is focused upon building student understanding as opposed to focusing on making a course a challenging to pass as possible. Once some of the stress is removed from the environment, students see greater rewards from their work, which promotes the development of increased self-motivation.

Teaching Comprehension

A third approach to increasing self-motivation among high school students is teaching for comprehension as opposed to attempting to “cover” a certain number of concepts within a school year.

Often, the exploration component is eliminated from the learning process in an effort to meet arbitrary deadlines. When students are given time to fully develop an understanding of lesson content, they build confidence. When they are rushed and pressured, confidence is often lost. As a result, the more a teacher focuses on individual students’ levels of comprehension, the greater their confidence and self-motivation will become.

Tangible Examples of Success

A fourth and final strategy for promoting self-motivation in high school students is to provide them with tangible examples of success. Many schools fail to take advantage of the valuable resource of alumni who have led successful lives after graduation. In most cases, people enjoy sharing their accomplishments with others, and many alumni are both honored and more than willing to speak to younger generations about their success stories.

Students need to see the possibilities of what they can achieve through hard work and determination, and meeting individuals who walked the same halls and sat in the same classrooms as they are sitting in today is an excellent way of demonstrating the correlation between self-motivation and long-term success.

Ultimately, intrinsic self-motivation is challenging to teach. Although it sounds counterintuitive, teachers sometimes need to “trick” students into a self-motivated mindset by creating an environment that fosters their individual academic and personal growth. Simply talking at students and telling them they need to be more motivated will never work. Instead, students must be surrounded by success stories and given in voice in their learning experiences.

Often, students are underestimated and, as a result, are “spoon fed” curriculum content. Providing students with greater autonomy within a supportive and engaging environment will promote the development of self-motivation to the point that it becomes a life-long habit.

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