Building Student Motivation, Confidence, and Character Through Participation

teens in community service

Many students, especially those who struggle with academics, can bring negative attitudes with them to a new school environment. Even students without specific problem areas in schooling may find it boring or stressful.

In a survey of 825,000 students from grades 5 to 12, as many as half were found to be disengaged from their learning. This correlated with responses from teachers and administrators, only 40 percent of whom believed their students were fully committed to and motivated about their education.[i]

Another study found that only 32 percent of high school juniors felt engaged.[ii] These findings support the common notion that many students tend to lose interest in academics as they age. While the secrets to maintaining academic motivation are something that every teacher, administrator, and parent would love to know, there are a few safe bets that can drive student performance while building character and confidence, both in and out of the classroom. 

Where Traditional Schooling Loses Students’ Interest

In a piece on student motivation, journalist Tara García Mathewson explores the gulf between traditional schooling’s focus on external motivators, like grades, and the frequently more effective strategy of using internal motivators. Internal motivators—such as a natural interest in a subject or a simple desire to learn—can often produce more long-term engagement toward a goal than the traditional system of reward and punishment. Encouraging intrinsic desire in students is a common goal for teachers, but teaching and testing in their traditional forms aren’t always up to the task. Mathewson notes how “teaching toward a test,” such as focusing on college entrance exams, can lead to a focus on rewards and consequences for students as primary motivators.[iii] This approach fails to engage students who may have had past experiences that discouraged them academically.

The simple threat of bad grades isn’t enough to motivate students with such struggles. Moreover, attitudes toward these perceived failures can easily spill over into negative feelings about school as a whole. Students can feel reduced motivation to apply themselves outside the classroom or to build relationships with others. If a student doesn’t have relationships or interests outside the classroom, it will be harder for them to excel in the classroom as well. It can also lead to an overall lack of confidence or to the student’s perception that they are academically or socially inept.

Motivation and Participation in the Classroom

Changing the focus from external to internal motivation to increase student engagement isn’t easy. Mathewson notes that many schools maintain a focus on external motivators due to their structure. However, alternative teaching models have found success. Some methods that have increased student motivation and engagement in the learning process are active learning via student discussions, the maintenance of a portfolio of accomplishments and acquired skills, and self-direction toward individual academic goals. The common ingredient in the success of these methods is student participation.

Student participation in learning is key. Participation in the classroom may take the role of group discussions and cooperative learning. These approaches, rather than lecture-based models where students passively memorize information that is presented to them, have been shown to be effective in increasing student motivation and performance.[iv] They also help students build relationships with one another and with teachers. With active participation, students can express themselves and their ideas more easily. As students drive discussions, they develop confidence in their ideas and themselves. This back-and-forth exchange of ideas develops critical thinking and social skills that carry over into all facets of life. Teachers learn about their students’ points of view, strengths, and interests, and use this information to keep students motivated and increase understanding.

Getting Students Involved and Motivated Outside the Classroom

Participation matters inside and outside the classroom. Having a network of friends and engaging in shared activities with them give students a sense of belonging, build social skills, and increase motivation that they carry with them back to the classroom. Studies have found that participation in extracurricular activities is tied to better feelings around school as well as increased academic performance.[v]

Giving students a voice in the direction of their clubs and organizations is another way for them to learn outside the classroom. When students are called upon to lead or take on responsibility within these groups, they can develop skills related to organization, planning, and compromise. Students in traditional school settings often feel like their curriculum and environment fail to prepare them for real-world settings.[vi] These hands-on experiences outside the classroom may be some of the most important life lessons of all. 

Student Participation in Academics at Shortridge Academy

Shortridge Academy places a unique focus on student participation in all facets of its approach. Academic and instructional styles are based on internal motivation. While traditional lectures are a part of the program, students are also encouraged to build problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in the context of class discussions and collaborations. Emphasis is placed on each student’s unique learning style and goals. Students develop these goals with an academic advisor and are encouraged to discuss these learning preferences with teachers. Small class sizes and individualized planning for each student make all of this feasible.

Building Confidence and Character with Student Partnerships

Alongside their academic work, Shortridge students also engage in student partnerships that allow students to build social and organizational skills through leadership roles in the clubs and committees that interest them. When placed in these roles, students make decisions that impact them directly. In clubs, students come up with ideas for their own activities and coordinate with faculty and fellow students to make them happen. On committees, students advocate for themselves and others on issues of school policy that matter to them.

Students in clubs and staff-supervised committees organize events, manage a variety of responsibilities, and communicate frequently with staff and other students. These are exactly the sorts of skills the “real world” beyond graduation requires—and the same skills that build students’ confidence and character. Through these unique student partnerships, Shortridge students learn the important values of responsibility, commitment, and cooperation with others that lead to success in all avenues of life beyond graduation.