The school year is still young, yet parents and students alike may have noticed that academic motivation is already low. No surprise there. Whether school is remote, in-person or hybrid, many students have come to feel that, if this year were a meal, it would be all vegetables and no dessert. Gone, or hamstrung by screens, masks and plexiglass, are the encouraging company of classmates and teachers, the camaraderie of tackling tedious work alongside friends and the school day boost of exchanging a few words with one’s crush. Still here is the steady stream of assignments, assessments and lectures.
With the bulk of the academic year yet to come, here’s what teenagers can do to equip themselves to continue to move forward during this difficult and frustrating time.
Understand the Two Basic Types of Motivation
Educational psychologists recognize two main kinds of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation takes over when we have a deep and genuine interest in a task or topic and derive satisfaction from the work or learning itself. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, gets us to work by putting the outcome — like a paycheck or a good grade — in mind. When what we’re doing feels fascinating, such as reading a book we can’t put down, we’re propelled by intrinsic motivation; when we pay attention in a class or meeting by promising ourselves 10 minutes of online shopping for seeing it through, we’re summoning extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is the one that tends to be prized in educational circles, and with good reason. It is linked to higher levels of academic achievement and greater psychological well-being. That said, intrinsic motivation can’t always be summoned or sustained. Young people may find themselves intrinsically motivated on Mondays, but not Fridays, or at the start of an evening study session but not as the night wears on.
It’s also true that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation aren’t mutually exclusive. It happens all the time that students both take an inherent interest in their academic work and care about their grades.
Rather than privileging one form of motivation above the other, it’s better to treat them as different gears, each of which helps young people down the academic road. In my experience, the students who are most adept at tackling their schoolwork know how to work both gears, shifting back and forth between them as needed.
Stack the Deck for Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is extremely useful, giving even serious work a sense of effortlessness. But it’s not a piece of cake to conjure up, and conditions matter. It is most likely to flourish in situations where students feel autonomous, supported and competent, but often fails to take hold when they feel controlled, pressured or unsure.
In practice, this means that young people should be given as much say over their learning as possible, such as giving them options for how to solve problems, approach unfamiliar topics or practice new skills. This can also involve, whenever possible, letting tweens and teenagers decide the order in which they tackle their assignments, how they want to prepare for tests or where they feel they study most effectively, even if that means that their papers carpet their bedroom floors.
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.
Know When to Use Extrinsic Motivation
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.
This year, even more than usual, adults are asking so much of adolescents. One way to help is by talking openly about strategies that help muster motivation. These conversations will help teenagers now, and also long after the virus is gone.
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