Want a College to Motivate Your Kid to Learn? Look for These Four Things.

You can help your college-bound kid find a school high in “student engagement.”

From success in campus life to academic success, many of the college prep strategies I’ve already written about will help you prepare your kid to thrive in college. As you coach your college-bound kid now, they’ll be more ready for the demands and opportunities of college. However, your child’s college choice plays an enormous role in their success. So as a College Prep Parent, you should help them find a college high in “student engagement,” a college that will motivate your kid to learn.

Colleges that Motivate Kids to Learn

For several years, the Wall Street Journal has published a ranking of colleges based on “Student Engagement.” (See the list and commentary here or here.) They determine this ranking by polling thousands of students at hundreds of colleges to find out where students are really “with the program.” Where do students feel they take an active part in what is being taught? This is key to having the “want-to” in learning.

“Having to learn” – grinding out work just for a grade – is a slow, laborious process. “Wanting to learn,” where a student is engaged in the process, can be one of the most critical elements in collegiate success. College Prep Parents should help their students look for those schools that not only want students to engage in academics, but purposely help that happen.

A College Prep Parent should help their kid think about finding a school that will engage them, not simply teach them. When our college prep kids know some of the factors that contribute to “student engagement” and motivate kids to learn, they will begin to look more closely at the colleges they want to consider. Four attributes seem especially important for motivating college students to learn.

1. Engaging Colleges Push Critical Thinking

Colleges that consistently support students in thinking critically as they learn are colleges where you will find high student engagement. Critical thinking has been defined in a variety of ways, but most definitions point to a way of thinking that involves analysis leading to reasonable conclusions.

“The college experience” is expected to consist of thinking about things that are worthy of consideration. But if a school doesn’t push students to think critically, their motivation to learn decreases. In other words, a freedom to approach learning through critical thinking is one big factor that causes students to stay engaged in their college education.

How can you and your high schooler find a college that motivates students through chances to think critically? Look for these signs:

  • Testing often involves essays. Many classes require students to “think on paper” (or orally) to show interaction with concepts, theories, etc.
  • Classes include debate and discussion, in addition to lecture. (Your student can observe this on a campus visit.)
  • All answers are challenged – even correct ones. Professors care more about students’ thinking than a particular answer to a particular question.
  • Current students report growing in their critical thinking skills.
  • The school’s application process makes it clear they look for students who can think independently and critically.

2. Engaging Colleges Apply Learning to the Real World

“I don’t know why I have to take that class. It’s stupid. A total waste of time. I’ll never use it the rest of my life.” So said a young high school student I overheard the other day. Although part of me wanted to tell him that I have used that same material for decades since graduation, I decided to hold my tongue. Nobody needs to spoil a good rant by a high school kid at the end of a long day. I did make a note to check back with him in a few weeks.

This small event does remind me that seeing the connection between an academic subject and the “real world” is one factor that helps a student stay engaged in their own education and motivates them to learn. Classes – and entire colleges – high in student engagement are those where participants recognize the connection between what they are learning now and what they will need later. Wise teachers make this happen. College classes that maintain their attraction help students at least catch a glimpse of the big picture, to see how it all might fit (even if their future job hasn’t been created yet!).

How can your college-bound kid determine if this trait exists at a school on their short list?

  • Instructors communicate the benefits of their subject (during a visit to their class, for instance).
  • The emphasis within a degree plan shows the interconnectedness of the classes that make up that particular major.
  • Academic departments have close ties with the offices of career counseling and job placement.
  • Alumni report that the school prepared them for the workplace scenarios they face and the skills they need.
  • Current students report that professors publicize “real world” connections early and often.

3. Engaging Colleges Offer (or Require!) Challenging Classes

“I’m bored.” This complaint may not alarm parents when made by little kids cooped up in the house on a rainy day. But if it comes from college students attending a class, it means they are not engaged. Challenging classes demand engagement in order to succeed. These kinds of classes teach students what they don’t already know. They demand understanding of material – not simply recognition of “right answers.” They raise questions (sometimes more questions than they actually answer).

Students in these classes will need to learn on their own before coming to class. When they do arrive, they may face moments of defending their understanding of the material. Sometimes, these challenging classes will force them to change their minds. In these ways and more, challenging classes require a student to stay engaged. Because students get involved in their own learning, they find satisfaction and a motivation to learn.

How can you and your student find a college full of challenging classes?

  • Current and former students report that several classes challenged them – not simply one or two “really great professors.”
  • Current classes’ syllabi (that list each course’s schedule/plan) show challenging topics, assignments, and grading criteria. In other words, professors expect a lot from students.
  • When your student visits a class on a campus visit, he or she sees that students are not sleeping, questions are coming from all over the room, and the professor continues to answer questions after class.
  • The college does not shy away from “bragging” about the challenge students will face.

4. Engaging Colleges Promote Interaction with Faculty

Few high school students seem to learn as much as the kids who establish a good relationship with their teacher. Personal interaction often leads to appreciation and inspiration. (College Prep Parents can coach their kids to start building these types of relationships in high school)

It works the same way in college.

Colleges that rank high in student engagement consider teacher-student relationships a key part of the educational process. Strong interactions with faculty may seem like “just a good idea” in high school, but they can play a huge part in how well a college motivates them to learn. As a collegian interacts with their professor, they become more and more likely to develop an interest in the subject matter – as well as a desire to master it.

What clues indicate a school promotes student-teacher interaction?

  • The school advertizes a small teacher/student ratio, at least for many classes.
  • Students at the school talk about knowing their professors and getting direct help.
  • When your student sits in on a class, the interaction is obvious.
  • Your high schooler receives an encouraging response when he emails a professor in his major of interest. (There are plenty of good questions he and she can ask.)

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