The One Big Difference Between Motivated and Unmotivated Students

Motivating Students

Feb 14

Wanna know the big difference between a motivated student and one who could care less?

It’s not their grade point average, their socio-economic background, or even the degree of their parental involvement. I’ve seen failing students in Title I schools eagerly engage in learning about statistics – and also seen upper middle class students headed to Harvard yawn and put their heads on their desks during a group activity. So demographics aren’t the difference.

What about the lesson itself? Could it be that group work, technology, provocative questions or engaging class discussions makes the difference?

Again, the answer is no. We’ve all worked hard at creating interesting and engaging lessons and yet, we’ve all had students reject those lessons at some point, preferring to talk to their friends, peek at their cell phones, or stare out the window and daydream.

So if demographics don’t matter and lesson-planning strategies don’t matter, what is the one thing that determines whether your students will be motivated or not?

The answer? Motivation is an investment decision.

That means that the students who are motivated are ones who decided to invest what they have – their effort, their attention, their accumulated knowledge and skills, their energy, and their time – into your classroom. Unmotivated students have decided to invest those things elsewhere.

That’s it. An investment decision.

Discover an easy 7-step process for identifying the right investments to ask your students to make. Get my Investment Analysis worksheet – and ​4 other FREE motivation​ resources – here.


So the question is, how do you get students to make that investment in your classroom?

Before I answer that question, I want you to think about how you make investment decisions yourself.

If you’re like most people, you decide to invest in something for two reasons. First, you have the money to invest, and second, you believe that if you do invest that money, your return will be significantly greater than your investment.

Well, it’s the same thing for students. If our students have what it takes to invest in our classrooms AND if they believe that investing in our classrooms will give them something of greater value, then they will invest. If they don’t, they won’t. It’s really that simple.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Suppose you are teaching a unit on close reading and you assign students homework where they have to do a close reading exercise on a difficult passage of non-fiction text. When you give that assignment, every student in your classroom makes an investment analysis.

First, they check to make sure that they have what it takes to do the assignment – do they have the time, the energy, the attention span, the skills and knowledge, and the stamina to get the assignment done?

Next, they check to see if the value of doing the assignment is greater than the investment it will take to do it. Now different students assign value in a variety of ways. For some students, the grade is valuable enough. For others, your approval or the approval of their parents is valuable. For some students, the ability to stay eligible for sports or their extracurricular activities is valuable enough. For others, the assignment may have enough inherent value that they will complete it.

After students do this quick mental calculation, they make an investment decision. Some will decide to do the homework enthusiastically. Others will complete the homework but simply go through the motions. And others will skip it altogether.

It all comes down to an investment decision.

Are you asking your students to make the right investments – and convincing them it’s a smart decision? Discover the answer with my 7-step Investment Analysis worksheet. Get it (and ​4 other FREE motivation resources) here.


So if you want your students to invest in your classroom, you have to first, ensure that they have what it takes to make an investment in your classroom and second, you have to demonstrate the value of what you are asking them to do on their terms.

That’s the secret to motivating your students. It’s not sexy. There are no gimmicks or quick tricks you can try. But it works.

If you want to learn how to get your students to invest in your classroom, check out How to Motivate Reluctant Learners where you’ll learn the exact steps you need to take to ensure that your students invest fully in your lessons.


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