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Students gather around a table to study in a school that focuses on improving student motivation.

How 4 schools are improving student motivation

Rigor, relevance, and relationships play a large part in improving student motivation and boosting achievement

When students feel motivated, everything is better–grades, class engagement, standardized test scores, and determination. That’s why improving student motivation is at the top of many administrators’ to-do lists.

If motivation is a person’s willingness to do something or behave in a specific way, improving student motivation is key to improving achievement: students who are motivated to learn are more likely to achieve than students who are not motivated, according to Finding the Formula: Understanding How Schools Can Improve Student Motivation.

The report, from America Achieves, argues that student motivation is central to each person’s learning experience, but improving student motivation is often overlooked in school reform issues because it is often considered a trait students either do or don’t have.

Read more: Helping ALL students feel like they belong

What role, then, do schools and educators have in improving student motivation? It all comes down to a framework of rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Here’s how four schools, profiled in the report, are improving student motivation through the framework.

1. The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (GSMST) in Atlanta serves a primarily minority student population with about 30 percent economically disadvantaged. GSMST, which is an American Achieves Global Learning Network school, was top-ranked in 2018 and has a 100 percent AP participation rate, along with dramatically outperforming its fellow district schools on math and reading proficiency. The school doesn’t just aim for college readiness–students graduate ready to tackle upper-level college courses, grad school, and then become industry leaders or enroll in doctoral programs. Those expectations come through in the school’s practices and graduation requirements. The school also gives students choice to pursue pathways that most closely resemble their personal and career interests and goals. Students also build relationships with internship mentors.

2. California’s Design Tech High School ( is a free public charter school that grounds student experiences in design thinking. Students have a personalized learning experience in four areas: academic, personal, cognitive, and cultural, which school leaders say helps them identify their interests and what the might like to do with their lives. In addition to rigorous academic coursework, students spend one day a week learning based on their individual needs and interests. offers an extra and optional credential called the innovation diploma, which encourages students to participate in an independent or group-based project that solves community problems and improves the world for others.

3. Roscoe Collegiate High School is the only high school in its Texas district, and it out-performs state math and reading averages. The district’s superintendent has put a lot of focus on rethinking the high school diploma, which was practical 100 years ago, but is not longer quite enough or quite right for today’s economy. The school adopted the Roscoe Collegiate P-20 System Model for Student Success, which includes STEM pathways, an early college model, and student apprenticeships, all of which are supported by industry and post-secondary partnerships. The school has a dual-credit partnership with Western Texas College, giving students the chance to earn an associate degree before they graduate. Students also complete a collaborative research project that concludes with an evidence-based portfolio. The school’s biomedical and engineering pathways are directly relevant to the agriculture and engineering technologies industries in its surrounding location.

4. New Orleans Career and Tech Center (NOCC), launched in 2017, is the result of a 22-organization effort to address the city’s public high school dropout rate and subsequent failure of students to secure high-wage jobs. The effort focused on improving the quality of a high school diploma and making sure it led to fulfilling and meaningful career exploration, training, and connectivity. NOCC students spend half of their day in hands-on training and project-based learning designed to help them earn advanced credentials for in-demand careers. Instruction in students’ home schools focuses on core subjects, while NOCC applies that learning in a more career-focused way, helping students develop the competencies they’ll need for in-demand careers.

Read more: It’s time to change our learning model

The report gives school leaders a handful of recommendations for improving student motivation:

  • Assess the challenge: Assess how student motivation is defined and understood in schools. Identify the extent to which student motivation is a significant challenge warranting more attention. Analyze any data that can provide a more complete picture of improving student motivation and the challenges to go along with that.
  • Engage stakeholders: Not all members of the school community will understand the importance of improving student motivation. They may not understand that it can even be improved at all. But engaging stakeholders is critical.
  • Diagnose the cause(s): After examining data and engaging stakeholders, school leaders should pause before they identify action steps. They might want to first unpack the causes of student motivation challenges in their schools and classrooms. This is a great opportunity to look at the rigor, relevance, and relationships frame and apply it to each school’s individual context.
  • Identify action steps and reflect on the process: Schools will want to be deliberate about the actions they take to address individual student motivation challenges and the environmental factors of the school.

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Laura Ascione

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