How to stay motivated to study

So many parents tell me that their teenagers struggle with how to stay motivated to study. 

Motivation tactics like using biscuits as a reward can incentivise your teen to revise in the short term, but is it the best way to encourage your teen to achieve? 

I talked to motivation expert Sharath Jeevan to get his advice about how to stay motivated to study and how you can help your teen. Sharath discussed: 

  • Different types of motivation – and which one is the best for study motivation
  • Whether you should use financial incentives to get your teen studying
  • How to truly motivate an unmotivated student in the long term

Listen using the podcast player above or listen on The School Success Formula podcast on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also watch my conversation with Sharath or read the summary below. 

Who is Sharath Jeevan?

Sharath Jeevan is a parent and an expert in intrinsic motivation.

He trained as an economist at Cambridge University but his journey into the area of motivation began when he founded an NGO called STiR Education, which is focused on reigniting the motivation of teachers in emerging countries, like India, Uganda and Indonesia. 

Sharath is now the Executive Chairman of Intrinsic Labs and author of the new book, Intrinsic. He’s really passionate about solving motivation challenges and advising people on motivation as it relates to them. 

What’s the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

To understand how to stay motivated to study, we first need to understand the different types of motivation. 

  • Extrinsic motivation is about doing something because something else is promised at the end (e.g. revising so that you can have a biscuit afterwards or studying hard so that you can get the grades to get to the next stage in your life)
  • Intrinsic motivation is doing something because you like it (e.g. revising because you enjoy learning or because you’re fascinated by the subject)

The best way to stay motivated to study is to truly engage with it

The more we live our lives by intrinsic principles, the more fulfilled and successful we’ll be in the long term, but most of us are very focused on extrinsic motivation. 

We need the credentialing aspect of education, like graded exams and league tables (i.e. extrinsic motivation). However, some of the best ways to get those good grades come from actually enjoying the process of studying (i.e. intrinsic motivation). 

When young people genuinely engage with what they’re learning, they’re more likely to develop curiosity, critical thinking and collaboration. These are powerful attributes that are incredibly helpful – and important to employers.

The school system often focuses on things like standardized testing, Ofsted inspections and league tables. This can push schools, teachers and parents to take shortcuts. These shortcuts can destroy learning in the long term and give children the impression that learning is just about passing exams. 

Passing exams is, of course, very important but the school system sometimes prioritises it at the expense of real learning. 

The three pillars of intrinsic motivation

There are three pillars of intrinsic motivation: 

  • Purpose
  • Autonomy 
  • Mastery

The first step in figuring out how to stay motivated to study is to look deeply at these three pillars and see how they relate to your teen. 

Purpose

For your teen, purpose is about understanding how the topics they’re studying relate to the world.

Any subject can be applied to their real-world experiences and will also help them in the future in some way.

I was on a coaching call recently with a young man who said that he couldn't get interested in Biology. I explained that I studied Biology at A-Level and, even though I’m not a biologist, what I learnt has been so useful to me through life. For example, I have a better understanding of how my own body works, which has helped when I’ve had to have medical interventions.

Can you help your teen understand how what they’re learning relates to the wider world and help spark their curiosity? How can they use their education now and in the future and to help those who are less fortunate? Can they visit places of interest and go to museums that relate to their subjects?  

This is what I teach in The Extraordinaries Club in module 9, Love Your Learning. It’s all about how you can take learning a step further and spark that interest. 

Autonomy 

Autonomy is the knowledge and feeling that they’re in control of their own life. 

Sometimes as parents we unconsciously put pressure on our children to follow a certain path, but this can harm their sense of autonomy. 

It’s crucial to let your child find their own path. They should be able to drive their interests and find talents that are unique to them and deeply motivate them. The joy of feeling in control of their own life will stay with them throughout their career as well. 

Mastery

Mastery is becoming the best version of ourselves we can be. 

It's not about your teen competing or comparing themselves with their friends. It’s about how they can get excited and motivated by being the best version of themselves and see their own progress as motivation to study. 

Should you use rewards as a way of motivating your teenager? 

Some parents ask me about using monetary rewards as a way of keeping their teens motivated to study.

The problem with doing so, Sharath says, is that they will start equating the value of learning with financial or non-financial rewards. When your child leaves school and goes into the working world, no one will be there to offer them bonuses and star charts for learning.  

Instead, we need to encourage them to learn for learning’s sake. 

As Sharath says, though it's easier in the short-term to promise rewards like money, a trip to Disneyland, or time on the PlayStation, it can have very negative effects in the long term. 

How to motivate an unmotivated teenager

Young children naturally have high levels of intrinsic motivation. For example, many studies show that 4-year-olds get lost in doing something, like playing or building things, without the need for anyone to reward or praise them. They do it simply because they enjoy doing it.

Our school systems can destroy that inner love of learning. So how, as parents, can we build that back and encourage our teens to stay motivated to study?

1. Make sure they understand the real purpose of learning

This goes back to the purpose aspect of intrinsic motivation. 

Help your teen spark their curiosity by using triggers in the real world (e.g. the news, places and events happening around them, the human body, people they know) to bring a sense of purpose to their studies. 

2. Show your children that you’re engaged in the world

As parents, we can also role model purpose by being openly curious and engaged with the world around us. 

Children pay much more attention to what we do than what we say. Watching the news, talking about interesting things and explaining things to your children gives them something to model their behaviour on.

We can also show through our own behaviour that it’s okay to make mistakes. We can show them that we can fail and have setbacks, but we're still good people and we can work hard, bounce back and stay motivated. 

3. Take a more holistic view of education 

A lot of parents come to me and say they just want their kids to get to the next stage. There’s this desperation to just get to the next step, then get to the next step after that.

I understand this feeling but it doesn’t help in the long run. We need to take a more open attitude to keep teens motivated to study.

It can seem as if life is a straight line, like a hurdles race, where children need to clear a series of hurdles (SATs, 11 Plus, GCSEs, A-Levels, degrees, etc) to land successfully in adult life. 

Of course, the truth is that it isn’t a straight line after finishing education. Life isn’t suddenly clear once you pass these education hurdles. There are many setbacks and bounce backs along the way

We should acknowledge that there isn’t a perfect, stable and frictionless path through life. Instead, we can encourage young people to use the safe environment of school to develop lifelong learning muscles and the ability to bounce back and to stay motivated.

If we don’t let them navigate their doubts and anxieties and find autonomy, purpose and fulfilment, children often leave school and find themselves lost. 

Find a way to enjoy learning

Whatever point your teen is at in their exam years, the real trick to stay motivated to study is to find a way to enjoy it. 

Engage your teen in what they're learning. School is a much more enjoyable experience for young people when they’re engaged and they’ll see the results over time. Even if progress is slow – perhaps they gain one more mark on their next exam compared to their last – it’s enough to create a cycle of increased motivation to develop further. 

Where to find out more about Sharath

Buy Sharath’s new book, Intrinsic 

Follow Sharath on Twitter

Connect with Sharath on LinkedIn

Over to you

What tips are you taking away from this podcast? How are you going to implement them? Leave a comment to let me know.

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