Where does student motivation come from?

Many of you have said it before: not all students want to learn.

That may or may not be true, but some students are so motivated to succeed they overcome obstacles too difficult for us to imagine.

Take Telisha Tanner, who John Hollis wrote about.

Her parents are drug addicts. She lived with a grandmother who passed away last August. Now the teenager moves around, living with different friends because none of her relatives could take her in.

It would have been so easy for Telisha to give up. But she hasn’t.

She persevered and plans to attend Georgia State University next year. She wants to be a doctor.

Why are some students motivated and others are not? What can we do to develop this motivation?

20 comments Add your comment

jim d

April 9th, 2009
8:56 am

Regardless of what many here will think — motivation generally starts at home with the parents. (we are not all bad). In some instances it comes from caring vcolunteer mentors in youth organizations such as the boys and girls clubs, scouting or church youth groups. Once motivation has been instilled though it becomes the major responsibiliity of the child to maintain that motivation and drive to succeed. Don’t misunderstand, this will require caring adult support from time to time, but motivation truly comes from within ones self.

Now y’all have a great day bashing parents. :)

jim d

April 9th, 2009
9:08 am

Oh yeah, and a Happy Pesach to y’all.


April 9th, 2009
9:09 am

Congratulations to Telisha for persevering despite the life challenges she experienced!

If we could answer the ‘motivation’ question, we could bottle it and make a LOT of money from it. I believe much of the motivation comes from the role models each person has in their life.

Children don”t choose their biological parents. If/When the parents are not good role models, it typically falls to a family member, neighbor, or teacher. Though they may not ‘ask’ for that role, actions of showing that they care about and believe in a child can have a profound effect on that child. ‘It Takes a Village’ is mocked by some but simply emphasizes a ’shared responsibility’ for the community be involved with all members of the community, regardless of their circumstances.


April 9th, 2009
9:21 am

I think that the research on resilient children finds a quality, adult mentor as a common thread among most stories.

Reality 2

April 9th, 2009
9:45 am

I don’t think we should ignore teachers who can/should be the influential mentors. Unfortunately, we seem to have many teachers who are very ready to write off those kids who come from tough backgrounds and act differently because of it.


April 9th, 2009
9:45 am

Some folks seem to be born with an inner grit that makes them determined to prove the naysayers and the sorry people wrong. I know some people like that, and I admire them.

For the rest of us, we can thank our families who drilled into us, probably from birth, a sense of efficacy. We feel like we can tackle a challenge. We have a sense of responsibility. We have seen people work hard, sometimes being financially successful and sometimes not, but all singing the same tune, “Get your education so you can be better than me.” We have been taught respect toward others and treated respectfully ourselves. We have been allowed to fail and pick ourselves up. We have been encouraged to explore ideas, and to explore the world around us. Whether we grew up in money or not, we are the priviledged.

Lisa B.

April 9th, 2009
10:26 am

I think people react differently to adversity, even with caring adult mentors. Some people shut down when faced with hardship. Others get angry. Some fight to overcome the hardship. I know some troubled young adults who admit they had caring people in their lives who tried to help. The help was not accepted, for whatever reason. Free will.

high school teacher

April 9th, 2009
11:16 am

Some kids are motivated by their bad environment to do better, while others are conditioned to embrace it and live a life of handouts from the government. I can’t tell you how many girls have told me their future plans: “I guess I’ll stay home and collect welfare like my momma does.” I can’t explain the difference in actions.

For the most part, however, motivation starts with the parents. Children whose parents constantly discuss education and who take an active role tend to perform well. For me personally, I never remember my parents saying, “If you go to college,” rather, “When you go to college.” I didn’t think it an extraordinary feat to excel in school simply because it was expected of me. At an early age, that motivation became mine and not just my parents’.


April 9th, 2009
11:56 am

Motivation comes from taking ownership for your life. The best thing the public schools could do is stop spending BILLIONS on useless reforms and make the STUDENT responsible for their behavior and education.

Of course the schools and society are too indoctrinated in saving children to ever consider that children, when held responsible for their behavior choices, are perfectly capable of saving themselves.


April 9th, 2009
12:32 pm

I asked two of my students this recently. They are among the most self-motivated kids I know and I wanted to see if there was anything that I could glean from their views.

Mainly it came down to a personal realization that their life/future was in their hands not anyone else’s. They had decided to do what was necessary in order to suceed because it was their future.

I’m sure their parents had expectations about work being done etc, but it really seemed that taking ownership of their life/education was the key.

V for Vendetta

April 9th, 2009
1:14 pm

I don’t think this is nearly as difficult as some people make it out to be. There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. The extrinsic motivation generally comes as external stimuli, starting with parents and eventually encompassing friends, teachers, and other important role models (and not so important or positive role models). Intrinsic motivation is the child’s innate sense of motivation combined with his developed views resulting from persistent extrinsic motivation—i.e., his home environment.

A student raised in a positive environment—born to parents with high self esteem, intelligence, and a sense of personal efficacy—will no doubt have a greater chance of success than a student born in the opposite environment. It’s not rocket science; it’s reality. Allowing for some exceptions, by the time a student enters the public school system, it is already too late to fully change his motivation. Teachers, counselors, and even motivated friends can try, but it is all for naught if the student’s home environment is one of irrationality and whim worship.

As far as books like It Takes a Village are concerned, that’s a load of horse $hit. A child is not a sanction or a mortgage on society—no human being is. A child interacts with others as he gets older, sure, but a child is not the implied responsibility of the proverbial village. It’s tragic, it’s shameful, and it’s disgusting that so many parents feel the need to bring children into this world only to abandon them either physically or intellectually. (I think both scenarios are equally appalling.) However, most people have their own children to raise without having to worry—mentally or financially—about the failings of other parents. Only someone who practiced a morality of altruism would say differently—or would write a book about it.


April 9th, 2009
4:33 pm

I just tell my son that if he doesn’t get his school work done and done on time that I’m gonna whup the tar out of him. This seems to work with him. He’s the V. P. of his high school’s Beta Club. I told him that it is his repsonsibility to get us out of the ghetto. Is this pressure put on him? Yeah, but so what…Life is full of pressures. He’s already looking back on his school career and thanking me. He’s narrowed his schools down between Princeton and Dartmouth. It CAN be done, but I don’tlet him “hand out,” and I don’t have a bunch of druggies around my apartment. I have always told him that education is the key to us escaping the ghetto. He bought into this hard demand many years ago. I always reward him for good grades too!


April 9th, 2009
4:39 pm

P. S. Jabo is doing so well that I’m taking him to the men’s store in Southlake tonight to let him pick out his Easter suit. I’m gonna let him look like a gangsta on Easter morning. He loves Vito Corleone and Michael. If this is what motivates him, then I’m going to remove the stone from his shoe! I can’t wait to Sunday morning!


April 9th, 2009
8:10 pm

I have to echo what V said. Plus, there’s no secret formula to motivating a kid. I’ve seen siblings (and I’m sure everyone else has as well) who have similar abilities but are 180 degrees apart with regard to the motivational aspect. Go figure.


April 9th, 2009
10:55 pm

Interesting topic. A few years ago the school where I taught was included in a study of …..well I actually cannot remember whether is was targeting motivation or environmental impact.
Several classrooms were chosen at the beginning of the year and those teachers were kept in the dark about the home situations of their students for a period of 2 months. At the end of that period the teachers were asked to make a judgement about each student’s environment at home. For example, one parent home or two, apartment or single family home, and other questions of that nature.
Turned out that the teachers were more than 50% inaccurate in their judgements of more than 60% of the students?


April 10th, 2009
12:50 am

Lee (DeKalb Teacher): You need to teach your class and quit blogging. The lap top is not fooling nobody. You better start teaching my son Jabo. I’m gonna call Crawford Lewis.

William Casey

April 10th, 2009
8:19 am

I have mixed feelings on the motivation issue. I, of course, want the best for my son. On the other hand, I realize that our society hides a dirty little secret: we don’t need EVERYONE to be a highly motivated professional. The kids know this too. Half the purpose of our school system is to simply keep kids off the street until we need them for boring labor. They know this and rebell! No wonder there is a lack of motivation!


April 10th, 2009
11:31 am

I think if there was a definitive answer to this question, every teacher in America would like to know. I don’t think it’s any one thing. I think parents play a role, instilling a desire for learning and achieving. But then you get some kids from great families flunking out and kids from the gutter rising from the ashes in spite of their parents. So then it also must be part of the childs makeup to want to succeed or not care at all. Environment probably plays a big part. If a child is contantly rewarded for being motivated to try new things (from parents, teachers, friends, etc) then they will want to continue. But if the child has experienced no rewards for that behavior, then perhaps they eventually lose interest in trying. I think you have to find out what makes each kid tick and go from there.


April 10th, 2009
12:04 pm

I found it rather amazing and sad that no teacher here raises the possibility of teachers being a factor in influencing children’s motivation. I guess we have fewer and fewer teachers like Jaime Escalante. Clearly, not every teacher can teach like he did, but can they have the same sense of caring and faith in their students?

HS LA Teacher

April 10th, 2009
12:37 pm

I definitely agree that teachers do play a role in student motivation – but it’s an extrinsic one that I believe will only do so much by the time I get students. Teachers who don’t teach and simply assign worksheets are robbing students of the exciting part of whatever the subject is. However – I also don’t think it’s my job to continually entertain my students, either. I do my best to show them the exciting part of literature and get them to think critically. I also agree that it has to do with the relationships and standards we set in the classroom. My students know which teachers care and which don’t. Many other aspects play into a student’s extrinsic motivation: parents, coaches, friends.

From there, the student’s intrinsic motivation is what really makes a difference. I’m surprised people haven’t mentioned the role of peer pressure here. I guess I’ve seen it because my brother and I are two very different cases. My peer group never mentioned the possibility of not going to college and helped me set my goals high. My brother’s group never really cared, and he’s a dropout without a care for his future. Same parents, same school system, even some of the same teachers. It goes back to the clear picture I had of my future, and the one that never materialized for my brother – he was/is too busy living in the here and now.