Motivating the Unmotivated

Kary blog entry photo2_cropped87 percent of recent high school graduates in a 2014 national survey reported they would have worked harder had their schools demanded a higher academic standard. But how, exactly, do we help students aspire to higher standards?

We’ve all seen those students, the ones with great potential. They may not be at risk of failing, but they’re usually only putting in the minimum effort.

I was one of those students.

Fortunate to have great educational opportunities, including private schooling to ensure my future success and acceptance into the best colleges in the state, I always managed to keep my grades above a 3.0. But somehow, I always felt disappointed and unmotivated. I wondered, “why didn’t I try harder?”

I came to believe I was destined to be the under-achieving student who would pass, go to college, get a bachelor’s degree, and yet still feel completely inadequate. Never feeling challenged by my academics, I incorporated “eternally unmotivated” into my personal identity, and never learned how to work hard.

By the time I got to college, I had fallen into some bad academic habits. My study skills and ability to focus were severely lacking, and even when I was struggling, I usually put off getting help until the last second. I did the least I could to get a passing grade. “All that matters is the degree,” I thought. “If I can get there, who cares if I got a 2.0?”

Yet I was unhappy and jealous, watching my peers excitedly make the dean’s list again and again. I asked myself, why couldn’t I do better? Why couldn’t I put in the extra work?

Things changed during my junior year. I had to take an Economics class, despite my distaste for anything remotely mathematical. I knew it would be the hardest class I had taken, but failure was not an option; I didn’t have time or money to take the class over again.

That same semester, I learned my dad was going to have heart bypass surgery. Knowing that the most important thing to my dad was my success, I forced myself to carve out extra time for studying Economics. I stayed up late some nights and even sought extra help, attending my professor’s office hours. And I even studied in the hospital waiting room.

I passed the course with a great feeling, knowing I tried my hardest. And meanwhile, my dad came through his operation without complications.

KaryAlthough dealing with the illness of a loved one is an extreme example, sometimes it takes higher expectations to convince an unmotivated student to work harder. Research shows that students are more motivated when they take time, as they do with EduGuide, to develop a personal core purpose for how working hard to learn relates to how they want to contribute to their family and community. From EduGuide’s activities, I’ve realized that great rewards come from hard work and challenges. Instead of taking the “easy way out,” I now have the tools I need to understand how to set goals and accomplish them, and to take bigger risks, pushing myself beyond what I know I’m capable of.

I’ve learned that, for me, setting bigger goals and higher expectations and taking on more important challenges is my personal key to feeling motivated. What is your experience with how students respond to raised expectations? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

– Kary Askew, EduGuide VISTA Results Coach


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