6 Steps to Motivate Your Teenager to Study for Final Exams
Final exam season is here and with it comes a familiar conflict. Parents want their students to do as well as possible, but teens often find it hard to get motivated and study properly. Here are some positive ways to help motivate your teen during the homestretch of the school year.
What Parents Need to Know About Motivation
To succeed on final exams, students need both the will to achieve and the skills to achieve. Some teens may appear “lazy” or “unmotivated” but, often, there’s more to the motivation equation than meets the eye. In most cases, what appears on the surface as a lack of motivation is actually a sign that the student lacks the skills needed to get the job done.
As clinical psychologist and bestselling author Dr. Ross Greene often says, “Kids do well when they can.” Students who believe their efforts will pay off (because they believe they have the necessary skills to succeed) typically apply themselves. In this light, motivation follows self-belief.
When my team and I tutor or coach a student who appears “unmotivated” our job is to determine what academic or executive function skills (e.g., planning, organization, time management) we can help the student develop. As students develop stronger skills, they start to experience more success and start to believe in themselves more, leading to improved overall motivation.
Skill building takes time and patience (both in short supply by May and June!), but there are things parents can do now to make effective studying possible.
Step 1: Have Your Teen Set Specific Goals for Each Final Exam
Students who set their own goals for each final exam will be more likely to stick with those goals. The Self-Determination Theory of motivation, laid out by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, helps us understand just how important choice and autonomy are. When students name their own desired outcome, they demonstrate a higher level of commitment to that outcome and greater goal-directed persistence.
The more specific the goal, the better. “I want to do well on my exams” doesn’t pack the same motivational punch as “Math has been challenging this year but I want at least a B+ on the final so I can raise my grade.”
Step 2: Help Your Teen Make a Smart Study Plan
Once your student has set specific goals, it’s time to shift to strategic planning. Start by getting a very clear picture of what’s required for each exam. What is the format of the exam – multiple choice, essay, or other? How much time is alloted for the exam? How much content is covered – the whole year, just the last semester, or something else?
With this information in mind, your student needs to do an honest assessment of how much time will be required to master the material for each test. Then they can break things into discrete study sessions with clear objectives for each session. Many students do well with a study schedule broken into 60-90 minute blocks.
Keep in mind that the initial plan can be adjusted and modified as needed. Flexibility is key.
Step 3: Engineer Study Sessions for Success
Having a schedule of study sessions is fantastic, but it’s what actually happens during those sessions that make the real difference. Wherever possible, use these techniques to make each study session more productive.
- Eliminate distractions
Your teen’s digital and physical study space is very important. Any student trying to work amid a sea of distractions will need to rely upon willpower to stay on task. Willpower eventually breaks down. It is a far wiser strategy to engineer an environment where the need for willpower is minimal and the environment itself does the heavy lifting.
For some this may entail leaving the phone out of the study room, restricting access to certain apps using Apple’s Screen Time feature, or locking down social apps on your computer or laptop using browser extensions such as Freedom, StayFocusd, Limit, or WasteNoTime.
Most students are tempted to keep social apps open while studying. In most cases, this is a recipe for incredible inefficiency. Every time a student switches from studying to checking an app or post, it takes many minutes to get back on track, and the encoding of the materials becomes more shallow and less durable. It’s better for kids and adults alike to maintain clear boundaries between work and play, which will enable deeper quality work and more satisfying play.
- Do the hard thing first
The brain engaged in a challenging mental task will often want to shift to an easier task. One strategy to counter this tendency is to eat the frog, an idea popularized by Brian Tracy, in which you do the hard thing first and then reward yourself once it is complete. So when a student feels the very natural pull to stop reviewing history lessons and start checking Instagram, they can remind themselves that the reward of 15 minutes of social media time, Fortnight, or whatever else they’ve chosen awaits as soon as they hit their next study milestone.
- Break the material into bite-sized chunks
Educational consultant Kathleen Kyrza frames this idea well: Chunk, Chew, Check. Students should chunk things down to a smaller portion of content, about 10-15 minutes of material. These smaller chunks of material are more manageable. It’s easier to get started when the goal is to review just 15 minutes worth of material and those self-rewards aren’t too far off.
After reviewing a small chunk of material, students should spend a minute or two chewing, processing the information and tying it to other things they know.
Finally, they should check what they know, spending at least a minute testing themselves on the material before moving on to the next chunk. Small bits of learning with ample reflection, feedback, and reinforcement make for superior retention and comprehension.
Brain breaks are extremely important when studying so students should have a plan to move through a certain number of chunks of materials, perhaps 4 to 5, before letting their mind rest.
Step 4: Build in Regular Self-Tests
Passive review is one of the least efficient ways to prepare for an exam. Students need a steady stream of feedback so they can see how well they understand the material and determine whether they need to adjust their study plan.
Your teen can test themselves using chapter questions, flashcards, or tools like Quizlet. Some students like to close their notes and verbally review a chapter with unaided recall. Others like to teach a parent, friend, or older sibling what they’ve learned as a way to test their own understanding.
Step 5: Help Your Student Track Their Progress
It’s important to track progress against the study plan, celebrate small successes along the way, and make adjustments where needed. Students can mark things off as completed as they move through their study plan. Some students like to use a chart as they go, getting a little motivational boost as they see visible evidence of their progress.
As your student starts to knock out small goals, they’ll feel a sense of accomplishment which fuels sustained effort.
Step 6: Encourage Your Student to Ask for Help
Let your teen know that savvy students get help when they need it. Your student may be able to learn from older students who took the same class last year, or their teachers may be able to help hone their studying through tips, study halls, and review sessions. Classmates can serve as study partners, providing accountability to help your student stick to their plan.
Asking for help can be hard, but it really pays off. The key is to know where to look for extra help if it’s needed, and parents can support their teens in identifying the available resources.
Tying it All Together
When we pause to think about everything students have to do to get ready for finals, it’s no wonder that some of them have a hard time getting started. Those who have lagging skills, either in the subject matter or in areas like planning and time management, will have a hard time seeing how studying can help. The good news is that these lagging skills can be developed over time and, in the meantime, we can help our students break the studying process into manageable steps so they can see a way forward.
If you’re looking for more tips and strategies to build motivation and other skills for success, join me this summer for my new webinar on How to Unlock Student Potential with 21st Century Learning Skills.