The Myth of Unmotivated Students

by Stephanie Knight, EdD
Adjunct Faculty, College of Education

bored students in class

Have you ever heard yourself utter one of these statements about a student?

“My student is just not motivated.”
“I just can’t get this student to want to learn.”

However, it is true that all of us are motivated to do something. Students, for example, will spend hours playing video games, texting friends or maybe skateboarding. There is more to it than what appears to be laziness.

Sadly, the answer to a “lack of motivation” from a child usually appears as a behavior problem; then, it is dealt with accordingly as opposed to finding the root of the issue. Fortunately, we can control our classrooms. So let’s do an inventory of ourselves to see how we are doing in our classrooms to meet the needs of these so-called unmotivated students:


Think of those last conversations you had with those unmotivated students. What do they care about? What gets them excited outside of school? If these students feel that they are just one big drain on the classroom and/or a behavior annoyance, then how motivated will they be to try? It was once said, “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.”


Now let’s imagine that you have developed a relationship with these particular students. Give some control over to them in what work they may do! Maybe you give them three options on how they’ll complete a task. It’s no different with parenting. People respond when they feel they have some type of autonomy and control.


The choices these students receive must be relevant or have some kind of connection for their life. If they see that this is an authentic task that has relevance for them, then perhaps they’ll be more interested. Remember, we are trying to give these students small successes to build upon. Once we have this, then we can move them on to more challenging assignments.


Record the small accomplishments, not just verbally, but with a phone call home or a note on a desk. Make these children aware that you noticed their efforts. With the small intervals of completion, cheer them on. Just like in a race, if we see the finish line as 10 miles away, we’ll most likely get discouraged. But if we can see that mile marker and are celebrated when we get there, we are more likely to want to run that next mile.


Finally, and this is a big one, how do you praise these students? First, observe them. Find evidence of quality work. For example, “That is a powerful topic sentence.” Remember, these students are so used to being the focus of what they are not doing. You need to focus not on a particular behavior, but on a specific aspect of their work that they value; otherwise it will be fake praise.

This quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery says it all: “If you want to build a ship, don’t recruit the men to gather the wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

The ultimate goal is to find that spark in every student so that they can yearn to learn. We are all motivated to do something, adults and children alike. All of us are more excited to learn when we have some autonomy, when we are connected to the task with relationship and/or purpose and when we receive accurate and timely feedback. When we find that small sense of success, then the yearn to learn has begun and the myth of demotivation has disappeared.

The College of Education helps prepare our students to become highly effective educators. Learn more about our philosophy and our degree programs by visiting our website or contacting us using the Request More Information button on this page.


  • Barish, Ken, PhD. “He’s Not Motivated Part I.” April 2012. Retrieved from com/blog/pride-and-joy/201204/he-s-not- motivated-part-i

More About Dr. Knight:

Stephanie Knight, EdD, is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts educator. She inspires students to think critically and creatively. With that, she loves to see her students grow in their writing with expressive flair. She, herself, continues to work on her own writing process. Stephanie earned her Bachelor of Science in Business at the University of Colorado in Boulder, her certification in K-8, 7-12, English as a second language, English, Principal, and her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Arizona State University. She taught in Title One schools for eight years helping them grow from underperforming to excelling, then in an independent school, and now is part of GCU’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses. She continues to be committed to seeing the next generation of teachers be successful in educating our youth to a bright future.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.