Imagine your son comes home from school. He’s frustrated about Biology. Today they covered, “balancing equations.” That completely drained his enthusiasm.
You haven’t got a clue what those are about. You don’t recall learning about them yourself. Never use them.
You ask him what it was about. It’s with the periodic table. How things change in a chemical reaction. Oh, and something about the conservation of mass.
He tells you there’s really no point in learning that stuff. He’ll never need to know it. Ever.
What do you say? Is there a trick for motivating teens to learn in school?
You could try to tell him that he just needs to persist, so he can get an A. Not very motivating, is it?
You could try to convince him that the topic is inherently interesting. This might work if you believe it. Motivating teens is easier when you can speak passionately about the subject.
But what if you can’t?
Even in this seemingly dire situation, there are a couple of things you can say to help motivate your teen.
Motivating Teens #1: The more you know, the easier it is to learn new things.
One thing you can tell him is that the more he knows, the easier it is to learn new things. The things he’ll learn later will build and expand on today’s serving.
A good way to learn is to relate that new stuff to things you already know. The more you know, the more hooks you have to make connections. Our study skills course gives students practice making connections.
Give him an example from your own life. For myself, my mother recently had a pacemaker installed. That was a little scary. I wanted to read up on it. The pacemaker solves an electrical problem with the heart. Those basic electricity concepts from high school physics made it much easier to understand.
Tell your son that he can’t always know ahead of time how the ideas will come up again. Maybe it won’t be “balancing equations” exactly. It could be some ideas that are part of the topic. Elements from the periodic table. That law about conservation of mass.
Getting this down now will make it easier to learn new things later.
Motivating Teens #2: Learn it well now. It will save you time later.
After a good discussion, your son is unconvinced. He feels that it still doesn’t matter. After all, he’ll just forget it all soon after the test anyway. Just a meaningless game.
Guess it’s been a pretty crappy day. Is it any wonder he procrastinates on homework?
Time to trot out the second principle for motivating teens.
Tell him that knowledge will stay tucked away in his memory. Getting the facts down now will save him time learning it again later.
He won’t truly forget the information if he learns it well now. This is often misunderstood. A common myth is that all that knowledge is wiped clean from memory by the next semester.
Sure, he won’t likely do as well on a school test of the topic 6 months later. Too many people focus on that. He’s forgotten in one sense. It’s not at the top of his head. Or on the tip of his tongue. But there’s more to learning than just straight up memory for the facts.
Want to tell him something cool about the mind?
If you learn something well initially, you will find that you relearn it faster than you did the first time. This works even if you feel like you’ve forgotten it. It’s not explicit. But, that knowledge is actually still there in memory.
This is called “savings” in psychology, and was among the classic findings of Herman Ebbinghaus. You save time when you have to learn again.
Suppose your son takes a more advanced Biology college course in 2 years. He’ll need to use these facts again. They won’t be at the front of his brain. He’ll have to learn them a second time.
This happens in the workplace, too. You deal with a topic or use a particular skill for a while. Then you shift to other things. When you come back you’ll have to refresh yourself. You have to relearn.
That savings you’ll experience is a good reason to learn well now. Get it when it pops up in front of you. Get it in your memory banks now so you can experience the power of savings.
Motivating Teens #3: Wrestle with the hard ideas to strengthen your brain.
Finally, your son comes clean. Yeah, but this “balancing equations” stuff is really hard. Brutally hard.
You might wonder if it’s as hard as motivating teens.
But you’ll keep that to yourself, right?
Encourage him to keep fighting with it by reminding him that he’s not just gaining the knowledge. By trying to learn, he’s also getting smarter. Brighter. Sharper.
It turns out that intelligence is something that can change and improve with effort. Thoughtful effort that refines thinking skills and strategies.
Like physical strength and stamina, intelligence adapts. Sticking through the rough spots strengthens your mind.
It works the other way too. Research has shown that students who understand that intelligence adapts persist more on tough problems.
Your son is not just learning about balancing equations, he’s also practicing study skills. Learning strategies and persistence that he’ll desperately need in college. And later, when he has to master a new task on the job. Crucial thoughts for motivating teens.
Tell him to practice his learning strategies. Even if he’s not so excited about what he’s doing in Biology right now. The practice will help him get better at learning. He’ll be ready to competently learn topics that match his interests. Even when that learning gets tough. As it will.
Image Credit: mrlanham