How to motivate students to learn

Growing up, one of the most common questions I used to ask is, “Why do we have to be at school?”. The most common answers I received were that my parents had to go to work and that I had to get an education, or that I would not amount to anything. This did not motivate me in any way.

No matter the reason I might have been given, I always ended up feeling forced to go to school and as if I had no choice in the matter. That is why I battled to stay motivated. I did not reflect on the deeper reasons for being educated and why it was so important. This changed towards the end of my schooling career. What was the purpose of my education? Why was it so important that every single generation attend school or have some sort of education behind them, even if it was home schooling?

Some of the questions I pondered were:

  • Why do we need an education?
  • Why is it important to go to school and achieve the best marks possible? 
  • Why does everyone have the right to go to school?
  • Why don't we have freedom of choice in this matter? 
  • Why is it so important to get a job? 

I never knew the answers to these questions until I completed my degree in Graphic Design and started working. I wish I had had someone to tell me the reality of why education was important and why I should have achieved the best possible marks. I realised that if I had pushed myself more and had developed a passion to learn and to achieve more distinctions, I could have had much more choice or more doors opened to me. But as a student, I lacked the motivation to be enthusiastic about learning, to work hard and to excel.

Motivation comes in different forms to different people. Every single student is unique and cannot have the same motives or passion to excel. Children must discover their own purpose and what motivates them to succeed.

Moreover, students’ motivation about learning changes. The truth is they do not understand why it is important to go to school and achieve good marks. They only realise the importance of education once they look for jobs or pursue tertiary education. How do we change this trend for generations to come?

The best books and study material that money can buy will not excite a student to learn or to be willing to work hard if he or she is not personally motivated to do so. Motivation is a key factor that contributes to the success of students in all aspects of education. Parents and teachers play an important role in providing and encouraging that motivation in their children and students. This is not an easy task to commit to, as it takes up much time and effort to get students enthusiastic about learning, working hard and pushing themselves to excel.

The most well-intentioned parents and teachers sometimes lack the skills needed to motivate their children. So, whether you are a parent or teacher, try using these methods to motivate your children to live up to their true potential:

Give students a sense of purpose

Education without purpose is meaningless. Commanding students to do work gives a feeling of coercion; they feel forced to do homework and to attend school and learn.

Parents give common reasons like, “You have to go to school because all the other children are going” or “You have to get an education, so you can find a job one day”. These reasons do not dig deep into the “why” reason for an education. Allow students to reason why they want to go to school; let them determine their purpose rather than giving them a purpose. Once they have their purpose they will have a sense of control over their choice. I know this cannot be feasibly applied to primary school students; however, they can be eased into thinking about their purpose.

This is a process of growth and development. Parents and teachers must lead by example; thus, they have to “inspire” with a sense of meaning. Have heroic intentions! Reinforce the value of school and reading and expanding horizons, not to mention the chance to make great friends and to share delicious school lunches!

Create a threat-free environment

Students do not fully understand that there are consequences to their actions. However, we do not need to emphasise the consequences of their actions but foster positive reinforcement. Rather than having a student driven by fear of failing, we should create a threat-free environment that will drive his/her desire to succeed. Create a safe and supportive environment by affirming your beliefs in a student’s abilities rather than enforcing the consequences of failing. In this environment, students are more likely to become and stay motivated to do their work, thus fulfilling the expectations of their parents and teachers.

Enable them to discover their passions

What makes us unique? Our passions help identify what makes us unique. Energy comes from what we are passionate about. So, ask your children or students what energises them. It is demotivating to do things that drain our energy. Children usually identify an activity as a passion. Nevertheless, it is not the activity that drives the passion, but what it is about the activity, that energises them. For example, if dancing is their passion, then we need to ask them, what it is about dancing that makes them so passionate. The freedom of movement? The joy of expression? The intense exercise? The melodic flow of body? The increase in confidence? Once you have discovered what it is about their passion that generates the energy, try to apply it to their learning process. All the positives generated by dancing can be applied to education.

Explain why students are fortunate to have the right to study

In 1953 the Bantu Education Act was passed by the Apartheid government of South Africa. The Bantu Education Act was created to make sure that all children of colour only learnt things that would make them good for what the government wanted such as working in factories, they were not allowed to learn properly at school like the white children. They were to go to school for only three hours a day, two shifts of children every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that they could get a little bit of learning and government wouldn’t have to spend more money (

The African community opposed the creation of a separate and unequal system of education rather than a single public schooling system for all South Africans. The community won and every child was allowed the right to equal and basic education. Teaching the history of why the right to education was created will inspire a sense of empowerment by previous generations; however, allow children to have their own perspective.

Explain why children have an obligation to themselves, family and society to study

The difference between rights and obligations is that rights indicate what the individual can demand from society and in exchange an individual has the obligation to society, family and studies which indicate what can be demanded from the individual ( So children have the right to education but they are obligated to obey the instructions of society, their parents and teachers. They learn how to follow instructions and so follow the structure of education by attending each grade in primary and high school to obtain a matric certificate. This teaches students to respect the opinions of others and also to obey the laws of society. Children are taught to contribute to society, their family and also themselves in order to survive. They become contributing law-abiding citizens through the obligations that come with education.

The importance of having a job that they will enjoy doing

We all need a job but only a minority truly love their jobs. This does not mean the rest have to live in frustration because they do not love their jobs. In fact, you must love the way you do your job. It is important to distinguish between a job and the way you do it. Many students complete their studies and start job hunting with the perception that you must find work you enjoy. This is a misconception because they were not taught to distinguish between a job and the way to approach it. If students maintain their purpose and motivation to succeed during their studies, they will align the same motives to their jobs. The student that becomes the employee will not develop a passion for the job but be passionate about how well the job can be done, through maintaining a sense of purpose and applying the energy that comes from this passion.

In conclusion, purpose plays a pivotal role in motivating an individual and it is what drives us to live and be all we can be to the best of our abilities. Allow students to grow and develop their own purpose and passion so that they can live authentically. Why do I recommend this? Because I was told what my purpose was and given motivation that did not inspire me to excel in school. Let’s not pass down our own purpose and passions to generations to come; rather, let’s help them foster their own and broaden their horizon.

To know more about motivation watch this video: Dan Pink; The puzzle of motivation:

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How to motivate students to learn

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How to motivate students to learn

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