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May 4, 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Student Motivation

Discover everything educators need to know about student motivation, from different types of motivation to actionable strategies for the classroom.

Teaching strategies that support student motivation and metacognition are some of the most effective, efficient ways to improve learning outcomes for all students, according to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). But what is student motivation, really?

Student motivation is the force that drives students to engage in learning activities and to persist in the face of challenges. It is important because it facilitates the learning process and creates a desire to learn subject matter. Research collected by the EEF and others has shown that highly motivated students learn faster and better, which can help combat the effects of lost instructional time and lead to lasting academic success.

Motivated students are more likely to:

  • Attend class regularly
  • Complete assignments on time
  • Put effort into their studies
  • Ask questions when they are confused
  • Seek help when they need it
  • Persevere in the face of challenges
  • Achieve their academic goals

In this guide, we’ll dig deeper into the many forms and factors of student motivation and explore strategies to move from discourse on the page to tangible change in the classroom.

Student motivation versus student engagement

Student motivation and student engagement are often used interchangeably in education, but they are in fact two distinct things.

  • Motivation is the drive to do something – the force that causes a student to learn, work effectively, and achieve.
  • Engagement is the observable behavior or evidence of that motivation. It is the actual participation in academic activities and effort to perform academic tasks.

To increase student engagement, it is important to focus on ways to influence motivation.

Not all motivation is created equal

According to self-determination theory, there are different types of motivation, depending on what the source or reason for that motivation is:

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual. It is often driven by an innate desire to learn, grow, or achieve.
  • We see this in students when they seek out challenges, explore, and learn simply because they enjoy the process. Increasing intrinsic motivation in everyday activities yields greater satisfaction and engagement.
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the individual. It is often driven by external rewards, such as grades, as well as parental and teacher expectations. Tasks are carried out for a purpose or goal separate from the task itself.
  • Research has shown that teachers and schools successfully use extrinsic motivation such as praise and rewards to teach and reinforce positive behavior.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be effective in promoting student learning and performance. However, as highlighted on the podcast series Student Motivation Nation, not all motivation is created equal.

Intrinsic motivation is generally considered to be more powerful, as it stems from the genuine interest and ambition of the student. As motivation becomes increasingly internally driven, it is more likely to lead to long-term learning and performance gains.

Extrinsic rewards, in contrast, can produce immediate results and require less effort in comparison to intrinsic motivation. However, students exhibiting extrinsic motivation (such as being afraid of what might happen if they do not perform well on a test) might appear to be motivated, but are less likely to persist and perform well in the long run.

Pro Tip: Reflect on whether you are promoting intrinsic or extrinsic motivation amongst your students. Are there ways you can replace extrinsic motivations such as prizes or ‘fear of failure’ in your classroom with more intrinsic motivations such as a passion for math problems or non-fiction?

Next, we’ll explore concrete strategies for building a learning environment that supports intrinsic motivation amongst students in the classroom.

Real world connections and student motivation

Educational research has shown that encouraging students to make connections between science course material and their lives promotes both interest and performance for students with low success expectancies.

When students see how the material they are learning is relevant to their own lives, they are more likely to be engaged and interested in learning.

Pro Tip: Get to know your students’ interests. When possible, structure your assignments in a way that includes those interests. This can include current events, and using technological applications such as Google Earth to show students real-world images of the places they are learning about.

Connecting students to their career goals

When students understand why they’re doing something, they tend to be more interested and motivated in carrying out that task.

Career goals, for example, are particularly relevant to high school and college students.  

A report by the University of California, Berkeley’s Career Academy Support Network has demonstrated that when students connect learning material to future career options, they are more likely to increase their academic performance. Career-relevant education has also been linked to student well-being, with learners feeling more confident in their future career outcomes.

Pro Tip: Get to know your students’ career goals. Ask them to write an ungraded paper about their future plans following graduation, including what kinds of careers they may be interested in.

This activates the question in your students’ minds and gives you an opportunity to tailor your class material and examples to the diverse careers they’re interested in.  

Relatedness and student motivation

It’s a necessary component of the human condition to experience a sense of belonging. So-called relatedness is one of the three components of self-determination needed to fulfill psychological needs. Note: we’ll touch on the other two in the following sections.    

Studies show that if your classroom supports relatedness among students and teacher, then your students are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation.

In the classroom, relatedness is deeply associated with a student feeling that the teacher genuinely likes, respects, and values him or her.

Students who report such relatedness are more likely to identify and take on the teaching goals of the teacher.

Pro Tip: Build ‘belonging’ in your classroom. Think about ways that you can communicate to your students that you care about them and that you respect them.

This could be through active listening, withholding judgment, showing empathic body language, and finding opportunities for SEL in your lessons. This is particularly important for students with disabilities, English learners, and students facing other socio-economic opportunity gaps.

Competence and student motivation

Human beings have a fundamental need to feel competent and believe they can succeed in life. Competence is therefore the second of the three components of self-determination.  

When students feel and think that they are capable of achieving learning goals, they are less likely to give up on academic challenges and are more likely to carry out problem solving and succeed.

The more that your students feel a sense of competence in your class, the more likely it is they will experience a shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

Pro Tip: Communicate mistakes as an important part of learning. Mistakes are a part of life, and so it is important as an educator to signal to students that mistakes are part of the learning process: “Mistakes happen. What did we learn?”

In this way, students maintain their confidence and, although mistakes do not feel good, they learn to bounce back stronger after failure.

Autonomy and student motivation

People need to feel in control of their own behaviors and goals - to choose to take direct action that will result in real change. This can be referred to as autonomy, and is the third component of self-determination.

Research has shown that supporting student autonomy fosters motivation and engagement in learners. The more that you support autonomy in the classroom, the more this will support your students' intrinsic motivation: “I’m doing this because I want to do it!”

Students do not experience autonomy when they feel a lot of external coercion – when they feel they don’t have a lot of choice and voice in things.

Teachers play an important role in the autonomy of students through their teaching styles:

  • A controlling style of teaching relies upon external pressures – punishment or reward – to maximize student performance.
  • An autonomy-supportive style of teaching supports the students’ intrinsic motivation – nurturing students’ interests, choices and curiosity.  

There are often strict structures at schools and rigid curriculums that place limitations on teachers to promote autonomy in the classroom. The trick is for teachers to carve out spaces - both big and small - in which to promote learner autonomy.

Pro Tip: Create autonomous spaces in the classroom to encourage student choice and voice. Simple learning strategies can be substituting statements about what students ”should” or “must” do with language like “this will benefit you by...”.

Goals and student motivation

Goals are fundamental for students because they provide a sense of direction and purpose. Research has shown that when students have goals, they are more likely to be motivated to learn and achieve, and to stay focused and on track. The following are two common forms of goals.

  • Performance goals focus on achieving a specific outcome, such as getting a good grade on a test or winning a competition. The core desire of the student is often to exhibit higher academic achievement than their peers.
  • Learning goals are where the students’ primary goal is to learn the subject and acquire new knowledge and skills, such as learning how to solve a math problem or write a persuasive essay.

Goals can be a powerful motivator for students. But once again, not all goals are created equal.

Given the importance of encouraging healthy goal setting, we will now explore performative and learning goals, as described above, and the teaching activities to increase intrinsic motivation.

Performance goals

Research suggests that performance goals can increase motivation by setting clear targets to aim for, and make it possible to track student progress and see how they improve over time.

However, a major criticism of performance goals is that they pit students against one another, whereby the motivation for a student is to be the best in the class, rather than to learn the class material for the sake of learning.

Conversely, a student may have their goal of not being the worst in the class. Such goals undermine students’ intrinsic motivation through promoting emotions of frustration and anxiety, leading to lower self-esteem, disinterest, and thus disengagement in school.

It is worth taking a moment here to reflect on your own teaching practices:

Even with the ways classrooms have evolved, are students encouraged to compete against one another?

Are grades or performance shared in ways that teach students to compare themselves to one another?

Look out for practices that drive toward performance goals in your classroom.  

Pro Tip: Focus on your students' individual improvement and progress. This reduces the likelihood that students compare themselves with one another. This could mean making student evaluations and grades private, as well as providing students with opportunities to revise their work based on your feedback.

Learning goals

Learning goals are more likely to lead to intrinsic motivation, the most powerful form of student motivation.

First, learning goals focus on the process of learning, which can help students build a deeper understanding of classroom material.

Second, learning goals can help students to become more self-regulated learners, which is the ability to manage one's own learning.

Third, students with learning goals are more likely to experience enjoyment and pride in the classroom, and less likely to experience boredom - that dreaded blank stare from a student.

Pro Tip: Add variety and diversity to student assignments. Instead of grading another multiple choice exam, devote class time to group presentations, practicing skills like collaboration and communication, and perhaps even peer-evaluation.

Allowing students to express themselves through diverse and creative ways in a safe classroom environment, means students will think less about how their peers are doing, and more about how to develop their own skills and interests.

Context is important

While the above strategies may seem clear cut and simple, it is important to remember that as a teacher or educator, you have limited influence over students in your classroom.

Your students have personal lives outside of the classroom, and their home environments and social contexts significantly influence their motivations and goals in life.

Pro Tip: Focus on what is in your power. As educators, it is important to focus on what you are able to influence in the classroom in terms of creating a supportive and motivating environment for your students.  

Recapping the strategies to increase student motivation

The more that students connect classroom material with their personal growth and goals, the more intrinsically motivated they will be. We will now recap the strategies to help make this happen, as described above in each pro tip.

  • Reflect on whether you are promoting intrinsic or extrinsic motivation among your students
  • Get to know your students’ interests
  • Get to know your students’ career goals
  • Build ‘belonging’ in your classroom
  • Make mistakes an important part of learning
  • Create opportunities for student autonomy, choice, and voice
  • Focus on your students' individual improvement and progress
  • Add variety and diversity to student assignments

Quizizz: An Evidence-Based Platform to Increase Student Motivation

We can’t wrap up this primer on student motivation without mentioning the role technology has played in changing the face of education and classroom instruction.

While the COVID-19 pandemic drove an increased focus on online and hybrid learning, a persistent challenge has been motivating students through quality learning experiences using online tools.

An innovative approach to increasing student motivation is online, game-based assessment and practice. One study published in the European Journal of Educational Research explored the effectiveness of interactive learning platform Quizizz in enhancing students' motivation, interest, and achievement in physics.

Following the study intervention with 20 higher education physics students, student responses to questionnaires unanimously showed that they were more motivated and interested in learning physics due to the ‘gamified for growth’ assessment tool. This was supported by an increase in students’ post-test scores compared to their pre-test scores.

Studies have shown that gamification is particularly effective for students who are intrinsically motivated. Online platforms like Quizizz can give students immediate feedback to power intrinsic motivation, while at the same time giving teachers insights they can use to tailor further instruction, support students’ individual needs, and apply many of the strategies listed above.

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