Implicit bias

If Your Students Seem Unmotivated, Maybe It's Time to Go Deep on Why

Most of us don’t think about motivation on a day-to-day basis. It’s when we want to change habits or accomplish something new and bold that we once again become conscious of what it means to be motivated.

“I want to start exercising more.”

You set that goal, join a gym, find a supportive trainer, start working out regularly and begin to feel more energized. If it all goes well, you might decide to run a marathon. And maybe you do, or maybe you decide to scale back and start with a 5K. Regardless of the outcome, you experienced what it means to be motivated and how this mindset can shift. You have set an expectation for yourself and could see the value.

Though we know—from personal experiences as well as research—that motivation positively affects student learning, it is difficult for many of us to see student motivation as changeable and context-specific as our own personal motivation. Many schools and educators act as though motivation is a given trait: “Javier is such a motivated student!” “Sarah is just not motivated.” We tend to label students who don’t connect with the material, don’t feel challenged or don’t feel supported as “unmotivated.”

According to America Achieves' recent report, all too often this “trait” or its absence is ascribed disproportionately to specific student groups and based on our own implicit biases. For example, there is no shortage of popular articles, quick tips and resources focused on motivating poor, urban or adolescent students—as though each is somehow inherently different and disadvantaged in their natural, intrinsic motivation to succeed—and often ignoring how various environmental factors, including the school and classroom environment, might affect student motivation.

At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that student motivation may be affected by how others perceive them and identity-based threats that often result.

How we define, understand and promote motivation matters, and it matters now more than ever as we seek to help students master an increasingly rigorous set of academic and cross-sector employability skills needed for career and life success in the 21st century.

In Finding the Formula: Understanding How Schools Can Improve Student Motivation, America Achieves Educator Networks shares the Expectancy-Value-Cost framework for understanding motivation and the factors that affect it. We look at four high schools across the U.S. that have made significant strides in motivating their students—not only to achieve academically but also to imagine and prepare for ambitious futures.

We believe schools and educators can play active and important roles in getting students ready to run their own races to career and life success. 

Mary Conroy Almada is the communications manager for America Achieves Educator Network, where she and her team work to link education to economic opportunity and lifelong success. Mary holds a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s in education policy and management from Harvard.

Join the Movement