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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Foster Self-Motivation in High School

Students benefit from understanding what causes procrastination—and from specific tactics that help them manage their study time.

March 12, 2021
Teen looks at the calendar app on her laptop at home
FG Trade / iStock

Self-motivation and strategic learning are kindred spirits that both support and depend on each other and are essential for learning new and complex concepts and skills. During the critical four years of high school, students invest time, attention, and mental energy building the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed for making strategic learning decisions for the rest of their lives.

In particular, they need to tap intrinsic motivation—learning for the joy of learning—so that they are open to persisting when challenged by an assignment or instruction. If any learner perceives a task as impossible due to a lack of confidence or skills, self-motivation suffers.

When teachers are patient and coach students using a specific set of strategies that promote focus and attention, they can help them to prepare for healthy, engaged, and productive lifelong learning.

Behind the Scenes of Procrastination

When you’re supporting a student who struggles with procrastination, start by helping them understand procrastination from a psychological point of view. Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, posits that there are three types of procrastinators (thrill seekers, avoiders, and indecisives) and suggests that resolving procrastination issues starts with recognizing whether the delay comes from a desired adrenaline rush of last-minute work (thrill), a lack of confidence (avoidance), or a challenge with decision-making (indecisiveness).

Inner dialogue or self-talk also underpins procrastination. I like to think of self-talk as falling into three categories within the context of education:

  • Inner Defender: “I can’t do the work because the teacher’s directions are so confusing.“
  • Inner Critic: “I messed up again! I just can’t write.”
  • Inner Guide: “If I can identify which strategy worked best, it will be easier next time.”

An educator’s job is to help students quiet both the deflective Inner Defender and the demoralizing Inner Critic and draw out the healthy Inner Guide. Doing so means helping students to both reflect on the causes of their procrastination (as indicated above) and embrace strategic solutions. Effective time management and systems to remember assignments and due dates so that they can budget their time are crucial.

Try this: In order to tease apart the nuances, preview the vocabulary of self-motivation, strategic learning, and cognition in order for students to identify their stumbling blocks. Explain the three types of procrastinators to your students; I’ve found that they tend to feel relief in exploring the cause of their procrastination. Once they’re armed with that self-knowledge, they’re better prepared to fuse effective strategies to self-motivate.

Then encourage your students to create a list of current assignments using a modified version of Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix. Help them to differentiate urgent versus important tasks. When reviewing the prioritized list, ask them to reflect on how procrastination may have led to the urgent, crisis-oriented assignments. As a final step, use the urgent list to help the students identify the next step for each assignment.

Avoiding Brain Strain

Learning requires time, attention, and mental energy. Brain strain can be demoralizing, and just like adults, students want to know that their efforts are worthwhile, both emotionally and intellectually. This three-phase approach for addressing the action list they have created can help them to get started and then persist, without experiencing brain strain.

Phase 1: Knock off the low-hanging fruit (e.g., the tasks that students are confident they can complete with a reasonable amount of effort). That primes the students’ brains and bolsters confidence for the next phase.

Phase 2: Once the students are in work mode, tackle the challenging assignment. The students’ brains should be primed by Phase 1 to focus for deep comprehension, which is covered in more detail below.

Phase 3: Finish with a task the students find interesting to end the work session with a positive mindset, reinforcing future motivation.

Try this: Help the students identify three assignments and prioritize them according to the three-phase approach outlined above. Remind the students to prioritize in a way that involves starting with confidence, moving on to the difficult, and finishing with the interesting.

Focusing for Deep Comprehension

Focusing on a complex and challenging assignment (Phase 2 above) for deep comprehension and retention often requires special focus on self-motivation and strategy.

Focused work sessions tend to be productive when broken into three chunks within one hour: a 45-minute work session, a five-minute break that allows working memory to begin consolidation and organization, and a 10-minute review that supports retention by reinforcing information in working memory. Students can consider this approach as making a contract with themselves, which helps them avoid feeling like they are descending into a black hole of work. Students may need to build up to a 45-minute work session, but it’s where deep comprehension takes off; any multitasking (e.g., responding to phone calls or text messages) compromises that deep comprehension because every task requires cognition.

Discussion can help students understand that task-switching rather than multitasking is actually happening, and fully refocusing can take up to 20 minutes. For example, fragmented work can lead to repeated reading; the result is often inefficient and ineffective learning, and if students can’t remember what they read the following day, they are unlikely to be motivated when facing future reading assignments.

Try this: Work with students to plan their focused 45-minute work segment by identifying a specific action step. Encourage them to consider a five-minute break activity, such as meditating or doing stretches. And finally, work with them to establish a review process (e.g., adding personal connections to their notes) for the final 10-minute segment.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 9-12 High School

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