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Petrina Darrah is a travel writer from New Zealand with a passion for responsible travel and gender equality. She has worked in France, Colombia, the Philippines, and Tanzania, and has travelled to about 50 countries in between.
Back To School: How To Motivate High School Students To Learn

Finding fool-proof ways to motivate high school students can make all the difference, and take you from struggling student-wrangler to engaging educator.

With motivation being such a key factor to the success of any student it’s good to know that there are some marvellous teaching tips that can help you see your students through to success.

Let’s take a look at some teaching tips that can help you to become a master motivator of high school students.

Prepare for success

In order to motivate your high school students, you need to prepare yourself for success


To motivate others we need to start with some self-motivation. Preparing your teaching strategy in advance can help you to have a clear plan come the start of the new term. It can also help you to build on your teaching efficacy.

Teaching efficacy is the level of belief that a teacher has in their ability to guide their students to success. Higher levels of teaching efficacy have been shown to establish motivation and improve learning outcomes in high school students. In fact, of all the factors that affect student achievement, teacher efficacy has been shown to have the greatest impact.

Having a good level of teaching efficacy is also essential when working with adolescents, since this age group is more likely to work towards a goal when motivated – rather than instructed – to do so.

But how do you build on your teaching efficacy and motivational capacity in practical ways? Here are eight ways to transform your teaching.

1) Be relevant

A group of high school students contribute to our community development project in Quepos, Costa Rica.


Engaging teachers are known to make the curriculum and instruction of lessons relevant to students’ experiences, culture and long-term goals. This brings value to learning by allowing students to make connections between their personal lives and the subject matter.

To do this, you need to gain a good understanding of your students. What societies do they live in? What challenges do they face? What are their short and long term goals? 

One way of gathering this information is by inviting students to express their opinions on  school work. In this way you can start to see your lessons from your students’ perspective. Responding to these perspectives can assist you in keeping lessons relevant with the changing times.

Service-learning projects, where students go into the community and carry out a community service project, are a great way to help students put learning into context. 

When applying what they have learned in the classroom in the real world, they’ll be able to see how their studies are relevant in a tangible way.

Further reading: What is international service-learning?

2) Be authentic

Show your high school students that you aren't afraid to show your flaws and get your hands dirty


Authenticity can help your students relate to you as a person. Be vulnerable and share some information about yourself, such as your hobbies, struggles you’ve faced, or some of the accomplishments you’re proud of. 

Being your authentic self in the classroom will encourage students to develop meaningful relationships with you and each other.

Of course, you still have to make routines and expectations clear, but building a sense of community is more important than enforcing discipline. To help students engage with you and see you as more than just the person who lays down the rules, give a little of yourself.

Authenticity should also feed into your lesson plans. Authentic tasks are those reading and writing tasks that have meaning in the world outside of school. 

These types of tasks have been shown to up the engagement of students who are usually disconnected from their academic work because they find it hard to see why schoolwork matters.

Further reading: All about service-learning for high school students

3) Set goals and rewards

Adopt a growth mindset.


Natural abilities don’t determine success. Hard work and dedication ultimately lead to mastery and a sense of accomplishment. 

Help students set short-term and long-term goals with clear rewards. Setting achievable targets can help students see their own progress, and get excited about hitting the next benchmark. 

Developing incentive programs or fun contests can be a good way to give students something to work towards and you can inspire them to constantly strive for better results by challenging them to beat their personal best.

Affirmations for meeting a deadline, reaching a goal, or even finishing a project on time can be meaningful and encouraging. Plus, prizes can be interactive and add more to the learning process.

Further reading: How to facilitate transformational learning

4) Be great at giving feedback

Honest, balanced feedback has been proven to be an excellent motivator, especially for the new generation of high school students.


Feedback is one of the most important aspects of education, as it prompts students’ awareness of their own learning and teaches critical thinking skills. 

But feedback only works when done well. Praising effort, for example, encourages the idea that we learn from hard work, whereas praising intelligence can make students feel like they are competing uncomfortably against their peers.

Striking a balance between positive and negative feedback is the key to making your comments constructive. Making your feedback as specific as possible is also more useful in helping students advance towards a goal rather than a generic “well done”.

Further reading: Exploring the role of the facilitator

5) Engage them in future plans

Get high school students thinking about where they might go to college and what their future career path might look like.

Original photo: “People Men Women” by StockSnap is licensed under CC By-SA 2.0

Help students connect their learning to the real world by showing them how it fits into their future plans. To do that, open up discussions about college and provide them with resources and set tasks for thinking about their future.

You can also involve the class in selecting class projects and school trips for the year. Tailoring these activities to their interests and goals will help them feel more involved in the learning process, which in turn means they will feel more invested in achieving a positive outcome. 

Getting students to come up with their own ideas and make decisions is empowering, granting them more autonomy over their own education.

Further reading: Understanding David Kolb’s experiential theory of learning

6) Think like a Gen Z

Technology has changed the way students learn and teachers should adapt their teaching methods to new expectations.


Technology has changed the way students learn and teachers should adapt their teaching methods to new expectations.

Gen Zs have been raised in a digital era where attention spans have shortened to match the instant responses and two-minute videos made popular by social platforms. 

Breaking lessons up into more easily digestible sections and using digital applications whenever appropriate may be a better way to reach high school students than more traditional teaching methods.

If you’re not sure how to adapt to this mindset, simply ask your students. Get their input on ways to make the class more engaging and find out which apps they use to make their studies easier.

Further reading: Service-learning and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

7) Track your progress

Make sure you track your high school students progress, as well as your own to maximise teaching efficacy

Original photo: “Create customer” by cmdson is licensed under CC By-SA 2

Changing the way you teach and interact with your students is a process. Take an experimental approach. Not everything you do will work for every student or group, so try different methods and evaluate your successes or failures. 

As you evolve your methods, it’s okay to suffer the occasional defeat. This is a chance for you to learn, too!

To track your progress, set a time for yourself to check in with how things are going, assess anything that is working and that you can expand upon, or anything that you can just write off.  

Further reading: Four critical components of contemporary education abroad

8) Never forget the importance of fun

The best teaching tip? Never forget the importance of allowing and encouraging your high school students to have fun


Enthusiasm is still the best motivation for learning.

Fun is the antithesis of boredom. Varied activities can encourage everyone to participate, hold attention, and break up the monotony of routine. Games can also be great educational tools, so having fun and learning can be mutually inclusive!

Another thing to remember is that you are a representative of your subject matter and students take their cues from your attitude. If you show enthusiasm for the topic at hand then they will follow suit. Think about what interests you about the subject matter and create your lessons around that passion. Your enthusiasm will be catching.   

To sum up, you can combat the apathy students feel toward schooling by being genuine, vulnerable and authentic, and helping them develop their own authority. With a little creative thinking and perseverance, you’ll be able to encourage teens to be engaged, independent thinkers. 

Check out GVI’s programs for inspiration on ways to use international service-learning to complement students’ learning outside of the classroom.

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