Have you ever been so entirely immersed in something that, when you finish, it’s hard to believe that any time has gone by? Maybe it was a book, a movie, a project, or a lecture? When you think about this, ask yourself why you felt this way. It can be hard to identify the specific reason, but surely, something motivated you to remain engaged. 

Now think about a time where the opposite occurred—and you found it hard to focus and stay present. This can and will happen to all of us from time to time—& often, a major cause is that we’re not interested in or curious about the task at hand. 

It seems that as much as teachers try to point to the exciting and intriguing areas of school, it’s still inevitable that students will, sometimes, associate school with negative feelings. Stress, confusion, annoyance, repetition—the list goes on.

But often, the reason for these feelings is that students don’t have enough—or any—time allotted for learning about something that is actually of interest to them.

Introducing: genius hour. 

What is genius hour?

Genius hour, which has become increasingly popular among educators, is time set aside weekly where students work independently on a project of their choice. Often, this lasts for the entire school year.

The purpose of genius hour is to provide students with tools to become independent thinkers and tap into their motivation. 

Benefits of genius hour

Genius hour encourages creativity and critical thinking.

An opportunity to work on an individual project with essentially no guidelines provides students with time to explore their creativity. How they structure, design, and carry out their project is up to them—and this requires looking at the various ways they might do this and thinking about which would work best. 

Moreover, helping students reach their creative potential in turn helps inspire them to tap into their curiosities about the world around them. 

Genius hour also offers students the chance to develop critical thinking skills.

critical thinking for students

Instead of following instructions, students essentially get to make up their own rules—and this involves a lot of thinking and decision making. Thinking about why one solution might be better than another; thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of a game plan; and thinking about how to yield the best outcome. 

Critical thinking is hands down one of the most important skills that students need to develop. In a world with increasingly more media prevalence, it’s important for students to have the skills to think critically about what they’re reading, what they believe, and what they should question. 

And on top of this, critical thinking skills help students make better decisions about their life in general. With critical thinking skills, students can improve their relationships, health, and happiness. 

For example: imagine you see a poster for a new club and decide that you want to join. However, you’re also on the soccer team, in the play, taking several APs, and in another club. If you think critically, you’ll realize that joining a club would ultimately leave you with no free time. But if you make the decision to join on a whim, you’ll likely have an overly-busy schedule, and as a result, mountains of stress.  

Finally, honing critical thinking skills will improve students’ collaboration skills. In group settings, students can use their critical thinking to help the group gather information, consider multiple ideas, and make better decisions. 

Genius hour provides a student-focused learning model.

Unlike many traditional types of schooling, genius hour puts the student in the driver seat—which means it’s student-focused. 

When students are actively engaged in constructing their own learning, they’ll feel more invested—and thus more motivated to learn. 

And as they become more motivated to advance their learning, students will gain independent thinking skills, which are critical for succeeding in higher education and the workforce. 

Plus, in student-focused learning, it’s pretty inevitable that students will learn about their strengths and weaknesses. And feeling more knowledgeable about oneself leads to greater self-confidence and even more motivation to grow. 

Genius hour opens the door to lifelong learning.

As noted, students may begin to resent school if they don’t ever explore topics that interest them. Genius hour offers this momentous opportunity, where students can identify their interests and hopefully, understand the value of lifelong learning

Having the space to learn about their true passions and interests is critical for students. When they have motivation stemming from within—rather than from the need to get a good grade—they will be more present in the classroom and in most other areas of life. 

Learning about something on their own accord helps spark students’ interests and curiosities. As a result, genius hour opens the doors for students to expand their knowledge, learn about themselves, and ultimately think about their goals. 

Genius hour empowers students to be independent learners.

When students have the opportunity to engage in self-learning, they learn various skills that come with independent learning. Some of these skills include time-management, organization, setting goals, and problem solving. And, in the absence of other students, they learn about accountability, which helps prepare them for independent tasks that will be required in higher education and the workforce. 

Self-learning is also a great medium for learning how to progress without a teacher’s help; and gaining this independence is critical for success in later life.

But there’s one enormous reason why genius hour is paramount to student success in school and beyond: it promotes motivation. More specifically, intrinsic motivation—but more on that later. 

Why is motivation so important in education?

Motivation is one of the critical ingredients for academic success.

Simply put, the more motivated you are, the better you’ll learn. You’ll retain more information, persist more in the face of obstacles, and perform better. 

While this sounds obvious, the concept of motivation in education is actually pretty complex. 

Motivation is one of the key players in guiding students to approach uncharted territory with enthusiasm. That is, motivation spurs students to continually engage with their learning, despite challenges. 

For instance, if a student fails their algebra test, they will, of course, have some negative feelings. But if this student is motivated, they’ll be able to move on and identify where they went wrong and how they can do better. On the flip-side, in the absence of motivation, the student will have a much harder time picking themselves up and getting back on track. 

Motivation increases productivity, inspires resilience, and encourages students to dig deeper than the surface level. 

But there’s another important piece of the puzzle: understanding the two main types of motivation in education. 

Extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation

In education, there are two main forms of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. 

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is the inclination to do something for the sake of a reward you anticipate. Thus, your goal is outcome-focused. 

Example: studying the parts of plants in order to do well on your test. 

extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation 

Extrinsic motivation is the inclination to do something because it is internally rewarding. Often, you do this out of a sense of satisfaction. So with intrinsic motivation, your goal(s) come from within.

Example: studying the parts of plants in order to develop a home garden. 

Which type of motivation works best for students?

Research has shown that, while extrinsic motivation can produce short-term results,in the long-run, it’s pretty ineffective and can even be harmful. 

When students consistently rely on external motivators—grades, points, gold stars, etc—it can be challenging for them to become independent learners and develop drive outside of extrinsic rewards. Essentially, always expecting a reward can be a barrier to setting goals when these motivators aren’t present. 

Additionally, extrinsic motivators can weaken students’ self-esteem. For instance, if a student gets a gold star every time they get an ‘A’, they might begin to see this as validation. Then, when they don’t get that gold star, their sense of self-worth may drop. 

Once the extrinsic reward cycle becomes habitual, it can be difficult to disassociate tasks from reward—basically, over time, those motivators begin to control students’ mindsets around tasks. 

According to Monica Frank, PhD, “The more children are provided rewards for activities that have natural reward, the more they will expect reward and be unable to set or achieve goals without that extrinsic motivation.” 

Extrinsic motivation can be effective in the short-term, especially by spurring that initial motivation. But, it’s important to understand that intrinsic motivation is key for enabling students to hold onto that motivation in the long-term. 

Research has found that, when motivated internally, students put in more effort, approach more difficult tasks, and in the end, come away with a more comprehensive understanding of the material. 

When students have motivation stemming from inside, they’re more interested in the material, and thus more engaged and motivated. The outcome is that they learn better. 

How can teachers spark intrinsic motivation?

The important thing to remember is that it can be difficult for students to identify their intrinsic motivation—they may need some help from their teachers.

Get to know your students

After getting to know your students on a deeper level, try to connect classroom material to their hobbies, interests, experiences, and goals. By empowering students to feel more of a connection with lessons, you’re helping them tap into their intrinsic motivation. 

Provide more opportunities for collaboration 

Often, students find genuine satisfaction in helping others. And this inner satisfaction sparks inner motivation. So try to find more ways to implement collaboration and cooperation into the classroom. 

Empower students to set goals

Set aside classroom time to discuss both short- and long-term goals with students. You can even make this an assignment where students independently think about their goals, why they want to achieve them, and how they plan to do it—and then come back together as a class and share. 

Learn about how students like to learn, and what they want to learn

When you tailor your lessons to your students, they’ll inevitably be more motivated. Furthermore, often, when students feel that they have autonomy in what and how they learn, they perceive the task to be more important. 

Final thoughts 

A Remind Report found that, through the 2019-20 school year, an estimated 1.3 million students were disengaged from their learning. 

The bottom line is that it’s critical for students to take a more active role in their learning—and one way to do this is by implementing genius hour into the school year. 

Providing students with the space to learn about independent learning is an invaluable way to spur their motivation. And motivation is paramount to any type of success. 

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last,” Zig Ziglar notes. “Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”