Failure to Finish: 4 key factors to guide unmotivated students toward academic success

By C. Dwight Bain, Nationally Certified Counselor & Certified Life Coach

Have you ever wondered why so many students get close to the ‘finish line’ of a semester or even graduation and then fail to finish? Parents, teachers, guidance counselors and tutors can be cheering for a student to push forward to finish strong and sometimes they just sit down and give u p. You’ve probably seen it. A bright young person starts out with promise and potential and then halfway through a semester they literally run out of gas and ‘check out’ as it’s called because they completely lose the motivation to finish school.

Academic Atomic Bombs

When a student ‘checks out’ it isn’t because they don’t know what to do. You can tell them continually that they should be doing their homework, turning in class work, completing reports and playing by the rules to get good grades and move forward with their academic career. Yet they won’t do it. You can beg, you can plead, but basically they stop doing the right thing to oftentimes doing nothing. Since schools reward behavior that is measurable, it’s like creating an academic atomic bomb that literally ‘blows up’ their grades which can wreck a future transcript.

You may be thinking that this is an overreaction, yet many colleges and even prep schools look first at the transcript before they look at the person. If you have ignored, neglected or abused your grades it will hurt your academic future. Yes, I know, schools and universities should look at the person, they should look at character traits or consider someone who is nice or likable, but the fact of the matter is they look at academic performance by looking at grades. If someone ‘checks out’ and gives up on trying to finish strong it will cost them, and if you are the parent or guardian paying for their future education, it will cost you too.

Fear of Success

Failure to Finish isn’t limited to students in school. It can show up in many different areas of life. People who know they should send a thank you note for a kindness given and then procrastinate forever and never get around to it. Creative types with a good idea they believe would help others and maybe make a lot of money, but they just can’t quite get the paperwork filled out to file a patent; then next thing you know they see their idea on an aisle at Wal-Mart and kick themselves for not following up.

I wrote about this huge gap in people knowing what to do, but then never doing it in my book, ‘Destination Success’. Giving up before a big finish is actually driven by the fear of success because it’s not about getting the right information, the right facts, the necessary details. Nope, usually it’s more about the motivation to do what you know you should do. The fact that students fail to finish is in some ways representative of the adult world. Many people don’t do what they know they should do, and sadly many people suffer the consequences of missing out on a lot of joy in life because of it.

Missing the Marathon

If you have ever participated in a marathon you know what I’m talking about. I saw it during a Disney event my little sister Trish talked me into running. We prepared for months and she coached every step of the way on how to finish strong, yet only a few miles into the race there were literally thousands of people in front of us walking. Yes, I said walking! They missed the concept of 26.2, or at least my understanding of what the Greeks had in mind when they created a distance run that only counted if you finished! They missed the marathon concept, just like students miss the very basic idea that no matter how much fun, or misery they may experience in school- it only counts if you finish the race!

So why do so many give up within weeks of the ‘finish line’ at the end of a semester? Here are four main reasons.

1) Fearful

They are afraid about the future, about what life in the ‘adult world’ will be like or afraid to grow up in general. It’s normal to feel afraid, yet someone who is overwhelmed with fears can often become indecisive and ‘zone out.’ Since running away from reality feels easier than facing it for some people they completely deny what’s happening to their grades and future. Some do this in a passive way and just slowly sink, while others try to avoid reality by using substances or media to escape. Yet there is no avoiding the end of a semester, and the end of academic dreams if you let fear overtake your future success.

2) Friends

It’s true. Birds of a feather do flock together, and students who are unmotivated about finishing can find each other across a crowded room. Highly disciplined and super motivated students hang out together to challenge each other toward greater success, and the opposite is true about the undisciplined. Your son or daughter may begin to hang out with the wrong crowd to hide from facing their academic future. Sometimes it’s to irritate their parents, but more often than not it’s because they don’t fit in with the winners at the front of the race, so they just sit down and hang out with those who appear to not care about the educational race they are in… but if you look closely you will see the insecurity and doubt in their eyes.

3) Frustrated

This group could include parents and teachers, but I’m mostly thinking about students who are trying, but it’s just not coming together for them. They want to finish strong, but lack the horsepower to really pull out in front of the crowd. These students are at great risk, because they will face a choice. Finish with mediocre results and try again next semester, or just check out to avoid feeling the pain of not performing to their potential. I’ve especially seen this with highly creative or bright students who partied or procrastinated until the last minute and then couldn’t pull out their grades. Their frustration often comes out as anger directed toward the closest person to them, usually a mom. It’s not fair, but it happens because they let the frustration take over, which blocks their ability to finish strong.

4) Failing

Sadly this group is the easiest to spot because they checked out a long time ago. When a student has reached this level they are so unmotivated that they give up on even trying at the most basic of tasks so their grades become a ‘free fall’ down to zero. To totally and completely fail crushes confidence and for many the desire to try again; which leads many students to give up on school completely and just drop out.

Not finishing education makes sense to them at the time, but it costs them dollars and cents for a lifetime. Consider the numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau to see how expensive it is to give up on education.

Average Annual Salary based on Education Level

Masters degree $74,602

Bachelors degree $51,206

High School degree $27,915

Finding the energy to Finish

So how do you motivate an unmotivated student? Well you start by dealing with your own frustration so you can think clearly about a strategic plan to guide your son or daughter toward the better life that education can bring. Here’s the key areas I use to find a way to inspire a young person to get back in the race and find the energy to finish strong.

1) Insight

This often begins with the parent closest to the student because they already know so much about their personality, their character and their drives. The Bible has a verse that I pray every day, “If any many lacks wisdom let him ask God and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5). Insight is to ask God to reveal the special gifts and abilities that your student has, and no matter how far behind they may be they have some talents. It takes insight to see it and then it takes courage to stick with it to light the fire of desire in the heart of one who may have given up.

2) Interests

One you know which gifts, talents, abilities or skills that you are looking for in a student, the next part is to help them see how those unique gifts could be transferred into something so interesting that they really want to show up and learn more. There is an old saying that the curious are never bored, which is true. When a student is inspired about pursuing something interesting to them they can lose all track of time because they are fascinated with the topic they are studying.

3) Important

Once a student gets inspired to pursue the subjects that are interesting to them, the next element to add to stir up motivation is to discover what is important to them. What is valuable? What activities do they believe in? Everyone believes in something yet often haven’t taken time to explore to discover what causes or activities they are motivated to join.

Here’s a comprehensive list to use to help your student find what is interesting or important to them. Review the categories with your son or daughter to find a logical place to begin getting motivated again.

What is Interesting or Important to Motivate your Student?


Academic Achievement Award, Accelerated Reader, Essay Award, French Honor Society, Geography Bee, Girl Scouts Bronze Award, Honor Roll, Junior National Society, National Jr. Honor Society, Perfect Attendance, Poetry, Reading, Reading Olympiads, Reflections, Writing Essay, Science Olympiads, Spanish National Honor Society, Spelling Bees


F.C.C.L.A, Future Educators of America, Future Farmers of America, Future Problem Solvers, Geography Club, German Club, Girls Athletic Association, Girl Scouts, G.R.E.A.T. Program, History Club, International Club, Journalism Club, Junior Achievement, Junior Beta Club, Junio, Classical League, Key Club, L.O.G.O.S. Youth Program, Latin Club, Letterman Club, Math Club, Math Team, M.E.S.A., Mountain Biking Club, Model UN, Multi-Cultural Club, National Junior Beta Club, National FAA Organization, National Forensic League, Newspaper Club, Odyssey of the Mind, Outdoors Club, People to People Student Ambassador Program, Pep Club, Photography Club, P.R.I.D.E. Program, Quill & Scroll Society, Quiz Bowl, Robotics Club, Running Club, S.A.D.D., S.A.V.E., Science Club, Scrabble Club, Service Club, Sign Language Club, Ski Club, Spanish Club, Speech Team, Sports Club, Stars Club, Stock Market Club, Student Advisory Committee, Student Council Member, Student Government Assoc., Technology Club, Temple Youth Group, Varsity Club, Vocational Industrial Club, Winter guard, Yearbook Staff, Y-Club (YMCA), U.S. Achievement Academy, Youth Leadership Program


4-H Club, Academic Team, Acteens, Awana, Assisteens, Beta Club, Bible Club, Builders Club, Book Club, Boy Scouts, Boys & Girls Club, C.A.R.E. Program, Chess Club, Church Youth Group, Civil Air Patrol, Computer Club, Dance Club, Drama Club, Debate Team, D.E.C.A., English Club, Environmental Club, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Foreign Language Club, French Club, Future Business Leaders of America, Class Officer, Class Representative, Community Volunteer, Hospital Aid, Library Aide, Editor, Photographer, Reporter Office Aide, Peer Mediator, Peer Tutor, Red Cross Aide/Volunteer, Junior Engineering Technical Society, Safety Patrol, Special Olympics Volunteer, Student Ambassador, Teacher’s Aide, Yearbook Editor, Yearbook Photographer, Yearbook Reporter, Astronomy, Babysitting, Computers, Cooking, Making Models, Modeling, Pageantry, Painting, Photography, Playing Guitar, Playing Piano, Playing Violin, Playing Drums, Scrap booking, Sewing, Mystery Shopper, Singing, Traveling, Spending Time w/ Family & Friends, Video Games, Writing Stories, Writing, Poetry


Acting, Art, Arts & Crafts, Dancing, Drawing, Acapella Choir, Acrobatics, Art Club, Band, Chorus, Orchestra, Ballet, Baton Twirling, Band, Chamber Orchestra, Choir, Chorus, Church Choir, Church Dance Team, Church Drama Team, Church Musicals, Church Plays, Drum Major, Drum Majorette, Clogging, Color Guard, Community Theater, Dance Team, Drama, Drill Team, Flag Corps, Handbell Choir, Hip Hop Dance, Irish Step Dance, Jazz, Jazz Band, Jazz Dance, Marching Band, Modern Dance, Music, Orchestra, Praise Dance, Pep Band, School Choir, School Musicals, School Plays, Show Choir, Stage Crew, Step Team, Swing Chorus, Symphonic Band, Talent Shows, Tap Dance, Variety Shows,


Archery, Badminton, Baseball, Basketball, Biking, Billiards, Boating, Bowling, Boxing, Camping, Canoeing, Cheerleading, Cross Country, Dirt Biking, Diving, Field Hockey, Fishing, Flag Football, Floor Hockey, Fencing, Football, Golf, Gymnastics, Pop Warner Score Keeper, Sports Reporter, Sports Manager, Presidential Physical Fitness Award, Gymnastics, Hiking, Horseback Riding, Hunting, Ice Hockey, Ice Skating, Karate, Kayaking, Lacrosse, Motocross, Paintball, Pom Pom Squad, Powder-Puff Football, Racquetball, Rock Climbing, Rollerblading, Roller Hockey, Roller Skating, Rugby, Running, Sailing, Scuba Diving, Skateboarding, Skating, Skeet Shooting, Snow Skiing, Skimboarding, Snowboarding, Snowmobiling, Soccer, Softball, Surfing, Swimming, Table Tennis, Black Belt/Tae Kwon Do, Tennis, Track, Track & Field, Tumbling, Volleyball, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Water Polo, Weightlifting, Woodworking, Wrestling, Yoga

Now that you have generated the insight to map out the key areas that motivate your student you are ready for the final stage.

4) Identity

When a student has figured out who they are, and what they enjoy doing, they are actually living out their purpose and having fun doing it! Perhaps the huge success of the Disney television movies, “High School Musical” is because it shows what most students would like their school experience to be. At this level a young person is totally excited about going to school because when they know why they are going it’s not hard to stay in the race. In fact, it makes it easy to move from a failure to finish to moving forward with a new dedication to finish strong!

Bonus Scholarship Strategies!

When a student gets motivated to be their best and their grades improve as they are more motivated it opens up new doors of opportunity for future academic success. When that happens the financial opportunities for someone else to pay for their education is amazing. Just log on to any of the following websites to begin the search for extra educational income so your son or daughter can move forward to a new level of academic and career success.

"I Don't Want to Pay for


College Board

College Net

FAFSA (Financial Aid)

Fast Aid

Fast Web

Financial Aid

FL Funding Publications

Free Scholarship Search

Go College

Petersons Educational Portal


Valencia Foundation

Wired Scholar



Holocaust Remembrance

College Prowler

Maryknoll Essay

Ranger Battalions Ass. of WWII

Flipnot Innovations

Brianstorm USA


Brickfish Scholarship

Navy League Foundation

Horatio Alger Scholarship

The Anne Ford Scholarship

Ronald McDonald House

Cappex Hardship Scholarship

American Fire Sprinkler

Into the Best, Inc/Free Will

Women Marine Association/

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About the author- Dwight Bain is dedicated to helping people achieve greater results. He is a Nationally Certified Counselor, Certified Life Coach and Certified Family Law Mediator in practice since 1984 with a primary focus on solving crisis events and managing major change.

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