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Motivation for learning

Written By: Peps Mccrea
3 min read

Motivation is best thought of as the mental mechanism which allocates our attention. And because what we attend to is what we learn, motivation has an impact on learning. Based on this definition, it is a misconception to think of pupils as simply being motivated or not. Instead, it is more productive to think of pupils being motivated toward a particular opportunity or not. Motivation is more a property of our situation than our character.

Motivation can be characterised as either ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’. Intrinsic motivation is when we are motivated by the thing itself (e.g. learning fractions). Extrinsic motivation is when we are motivated towards a tangential thing (e.g. being given a sweet to learn fractions). Whilst extrinsic motivators can work, they typically have short-term effects. When they are withdrawn, motivation returns to baseline levels (or worse). Therefore, when using extrinsic motivators (such as classroom ‘rewards’), it is best to use as little as possible, and remove them as soon as possible (Willingham, 2007).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research suggests that motivation can have a significant effect on outcomes. A meta-analysis by Kieigbaum (2018) found a significant positive correlation between motivation and school achievement (r = 0.27). A study by Gneezy et al. (2019) found that around 20% of the gap in PISA maths scores between Shanghai and the US could be due to pupil effort. More recently, a study by Jerrim et al. (2020) found that academically ambitious and driven teenagers achieve grades around 0.37 standard deviations above their peers (controlling for prior academic attainment and school attended).

However, despite the importance of motivation, it appears to inexorably decline during compulsory education (Mansfield & Wosnitza, 2010). One reason that schools may not yet have a sufficient and stable influence on motivation for learning is because it is a highly complex and largely unconscious phenomenon (Howard-Jones, 2018). As a result, research around motivation for learning lacks consensus (Cook, 2016), and is plagued by crises of replication (Richie, 2020).

To develop a reliable framework that schools can use to understand and influence motivation for learning, it is likely that we will need to draw on theory and evidence across multiple fields, including evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and cognitive science, as well as educational research.

Within educational research, the theories that appear to fit best within a more integrated account of motivation (Curley et al., 2018) are:

  1. Expectancy-value-cost theory (Garron and Hulleman, 2015).
  2. Self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000).

When we combine these theories and situate them in the context of school, several ‘core drivers’ of motivation of learning emerge. To increase motivation for learning in school, we can:

  • Increase expectancy: Give pupils a high success rate to look back on; frame what success means and help them attribute it accurately; pre-empt failure.
  • Reduce cost: Make the process of learning easy, whilst keeping the content of learning challenging; script chains and cues; stick with it.
  • Normalise desirable behaviour: Elevate the visibility of desirable norms; amplify peer approval; emphasise what you want to happen, not what you don’t.
  • Build belonging: Signal the status of all pupils in your class; develop a unifying purpose and identify common ground; earn and keep trust.
  • Explain the why: Expose the benefits of the choices you make for your pupils; provide opportunities for them to opt in; invest in building metamotivation. (Mccrea, 2020)

Pink (2011) has popularised the concept of autonomy in the workplace as a lever for increasing employee happiness and productivity. However, in the context of school, autonomy is less straightforward, particularly when it comes to the fundamental processes of schooling: what to learn and how to learn it.

The nature of the things we teach combined with the novice status of our pupils means they simply don’t know what they don’t know. Just as medical patients typically lack the expertise to diagnose their own ailments, pupils are often not best placed to make the smartest choices about their own learning, even if they think they are (Christodoulou, 2020). Instead, it may be wiser for teachers to simply make decisions on behalf of their pupils, focus their efforts on explaining why that decision is in their interests and then help pupils to ‘make sense’ of, and commit to that direction of travel. Strategies to help pupils commit include:

  • Rationale elaboration: Getting pupils to summarise the ‘why’ in their own words and explore how it links to their personal goals or values.
  • Implementation intentions: Getting pupils to detail the steps they will take to be successful, including the where and when of their actions, plus how they will overcome any barriers that crop up along the way (Fletcher-Wood, 2018).
  • Commitment contracts: Getting pupils to publicly declare their endorsement and intentions, either verbally or on paper.

Key takeaways

  • Although the evidence is untidy, motivation appears to make a difference to pupil outcomes.
  • Pupil motivation typically declines during a pupil’s school career, possibly because it is such a complex and unconscious thing.
  • When we look across fields, themes do start to appear which can help us understand and influence motivation for learning.

If you want to find out more:

Mccrea (2020) Motivated teaching: Harnessing the science of motivation to boost attention and effort.

  • Christodoulou D (2020) When is student choice a good idea? (accessed 3 November 2020).
  • Barron K and Hulleman C (2015) Expectancy-value-cost model of motivation. Psychology 84: 261-271.
  • Cook D and Artino A (2016) Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories. Medical Education50(10): 997-1014.
  • Curley L, MacLean R, Murray J et al. (2018) Decision science: A new hope. Psychological Reports 122(6): 2417-2439.
  • Fletcher-Wood H (2018) Beyond 'I will': Implementation intentions to encourage student action (accessed 3 November 2020).
  • Gneezy U, List J, Livingston J et al. (2019) Measuring success in education: The role of effort on the test itself. American Economic Review: Insights 1(3): 291-308.
  • Howard-Jones P (2018) Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Jerrim J, Shure N and Wyness G (2020) Driven to succeed? Teenagers' drive, ambition and performance on high-stakes examinations. IZA Discussion Papers, No. 13525. Bonn: Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
  • Kriegbaum K, Becker N and Spinath B (2018) The relative importance of intelligence and motivation as predictors of school achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review 25: 120-148.
  • Masnfield C and Wosnitza M (2010) Motivation goals during adolescence: A cross-sectional perspective. Issues in Educational Research 20(2): 149-165.
  • Mccrea P (2020) Motivated teaching: Harnessing the science of motivation to boost attention and effort in the classroom. CreateSpace.
  • Pink D (2011) Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
  • Richie S (2020) Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth. New York: Metropolitan Books.
  • Ryan R and Deci E (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55: 68-78.
  • Willingham D (2007) Ask the cognitive scientist: should learning be its own reward? American Educator31(4): 29-35.
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