How to Increase Commitment in Students

Student engagement. It’s a topic every educator thinks about today. How do we get these kids with an eight-second attention span to stay committed to what they said they’d do? How do we get them to pay attention long enough to accomplish something significant? How do we get them to continue when they’re bored?

Clayton was a good student, who performed well in class and on the field. Everyone in his hometown believed he was full of promise. When he graduated from high school, he might even get a scholarship to a college—in fact, some thought he might get both an academic and an athletic scholarship. But the last time I spoke to him, Clayton had made some decisions that flew in the face of his potential.

  • He had dropped a class.
  • He had quit his lacrosse team.
  • He broke up with his girlfriend.
  • He almost didn’t finish high school.

Clayton is a picture of what I see too often. Someone who may miss fulfilling their potential because they’re unable to stick with a commitment and show some grit. He told me he just didn’t feel like doing it anymore.

How do we create something in which students want to participate?

What Motivates Students to Get on Board and Stay on Board?

We’re at the dawn of a new semester of the school year. It’s half time, about the time when many students question whether they should continue a program, a project, a major, or playing on a team. The novelty is over; it’s now a grind.

Author Travis Bradberry said, “Humans are creatures of habit. If you quit when things get tough, it gets that much easier to quit the next time. On the other hand, if you force yourself to push through it, the grit begins to grow in you.”

What is it, however, that we can do as teachers, leaders and coaches to create an environment that attracts students to get on board and want to stay? As I study student activism, I see some patterns. These are especially true today and can be applied in any context, if we’ll take the time and make the effort. Let me suggest four:

1. It Must be Push and Pull

Almost anything worthwhile requires a “push” at the beginning. By this I mean, no one climbs a mountain on accident. A leader must step forward and begin to push an idea, an aspiration and to connect the dots for students. At some point, however, the aspiration must be adopted by those students. Activism must eventually be organic, driven by the recipients, where they begin to “pull” the action forward. They become driven internally, not by an external push. Genuine progress is always push and then pull.

2. It Must be Different yet Doable

I have found that students are not only overwhelmed with options today, but they’re almost impossible to “wow.” Everyone is clamoring for their attention. Brands, friends and media are all vying for their attention. To be attractive, even enticing, your challenge must be differentiated from other options. What are you doing that is unique from everything else? Next, your idea must seem doable; something that students feel they could actually pull off and succeed. It’s a tough balance, but an important one to capture students’ imagination.

3. It Must be Simple but Hard

This is difficult to pull off, but you must try. What you are challenging them to do must be simple to understand yet hard to actually pull off. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. Just examine great movements in history, and you find that the vision was easy to grasp and comprehend—so much so that young people can share the idea with others, too. However, it must be difficult enough that it dares them to risk their reputations. I’ve believed for years that students want to do something that is very important and almost impossible.

4. It Must be Slow then Fast

Finally, you must be willing to endure starting in first gear, knowing that your big idea may take a while to gain traction. Ohio State University athletic director, Gene Smith, has a sign in his office: “You’ve got to go slow to go fast.” The beginning of any endeavor is when you tweak the recipe; you work out the wrinkles in your system. Once you do, you’ll eventually gain momentum. One signal is that things become student-led. They experience metacognition. They own it. As I mentioned above, all activism must eventually feel organic. When it is, it will be self-sustaining.

Question—What are you doing with students that meet the criteria above?

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Leading today’s students often feels like being in a new country with old maps that don’t work. Understanding and connecting with the generation in this land is often times frustrating and draining. We need new strategies on how to march off our old maps and create new ones.

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How to Increase Commitment in Students