Signs of a Motivated Learner (and How to Help Create One)

Signs of a Motivated Learner (and How to Help Create One)


You’ve no doubt heard someone say, “You’ve got to motivate children to learn,” in a tone that suggests “motivation” is some esoteric concept. Actually, children are motivated by the same feelings that motivate adults.

Freedom from Fear

The most basic motivation is the desire to be protected from danger or pain. Because a “motivated” person feels safe and confident in general, she willingly attempts new ventures that may be uncomfortable in themselves, expecting the result to be worth it.

When you meet an “unmotivated” learner: Understand that she may fear the consequences of failure more than the consequences of not trying. Encourage her to visualize her dreams and take beginners’ steps in that direction. Assure her that no matter how many setbacks she experiences, you’ll always believe in her.


Motivated learners explore new ground not because they “have” to, but because they want to. They genuinely enjoy what they’re learning and instinctively get into the flow of the moment.

When you meet an “unmotivated” learner: Find out what he really enjoys doing, and consider ways to tie his passion to a learning topic: if he loves to draw, let him create a map of sixteenth-century England instead of writing an essay. If his initial answer to “what do you enjoy?” is passive (“watching television”), he’s probably low on self-confidence. Dig deeper (“What TV character would you want to be like?”) to find what he’d love to do.

Sense of Relevance

The classic objection to academic subjects is, “But I’ll never need to know this!” A motivated learner appreciates that learning math will help her become the engineer she dreams of being, and that understanding social sciences will make her a better engineer who can address human concerns about structural fallibility.

When you meet an “unmotivated” learner: Address deeper concerns of not being “smart enough” to understand the topic. Invite a classroom guest speaker who works in the learner’s dream job and understands how other subjects tie into that work.

Sense of Individual Purpose

No one really lacks motivation if he’s confident in what he was made for. His brain automatically connects everything to his sense of purpose, incorporating the relevant, discarding the irrelevant, and completing whatever needs doing in a way that serves his broader view.


When you meet an “unmotivated” learner: Encourage him to verbalize what he’d like to see changed in the world, and how he might be a part of that. Don’t add, “... when you’re older”; motivated people can do remarkable things at any age.

Sense of Community

Every human being wants to feel part of the group and to influence the group. Every motivated learner intends to serve the larger world.


When you meet an “unmotivated” learner: Find out if anyone, anywhere, is somehow making her feel like an outsider. (That person may even be you!) Do whatever you can to deal with any such problem; and emphasize that you’re always on her side. When you have multiple children under your influence, encourage them to work together and get to know everyone else; make it clear that deliberate excluding will not be tolerated.


Always remember: the best way to “motivate” somebody is to appreciate him as a unique individual.