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Why are students motivated to learn and reach goals?


Motivation stimulates, guides, and sustains learning. It is an important building block of self-regulated learning, the set of attitudes and mental processes that allow a person to steer their own learning.[i] Self-regulated learning involves the action of learning itself, as well as the metacognitive processes that help learners plan what and how to learn, and evaluate the outcomes of their learning.[ii] Motivation is also closely connected to self-efficacy, a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task.[iii]

Motivation,[iv] self-efficacy,[v] and self-regulated learning [vi] have all been linked to academic achievement.

The sections below highlight key findings from the research on fostering student motivation and learning mindsets.

Key Findings

Fostering Student Motivation

Opportunities for autonomy increase motivation and self-regulated learning.[vii]

Opportunities for autonomy increase motivation and self-regulated learning.[vii] Because of its connection to intrinsic motivation and mastery goals, student autonomy can help build motivation and self-regulated learning skills.[viii] Giving students choice, such as what work to prioritize during open study time or the option to pick a novel to read for an assignment, fosters a sense of control and self-driven learning. Educators can support students’ autonomy and self-regulation by guiding them in establishing and making progress toward project goals.[ix] They can use scaffolding methods, such as sample assignments or curriculum maps, to provide students with structure and support while encouraging them to progress toward more independent learning.[x]

Feedback is more effective when geared toward the learning process, not the student as a person.

Praise can enhance motivation when it is sincere, specific, and encourages autonomy and self-efficacy.[xi] Process praise focuses on the strategies and effort involved in learning effectively. It helps students understand that their learning successes and failures are shaped by the choices they make — rather than who they are. This type of feedback is more effective than person praise, which focuses on the individual, such as calling someone “smart” or a “good student.”[xii] Person praise leads children to see intelligence as fixed, rather than something they can work on improving (a growth mindset), and can undermine self-worth, self-efficacy, and diligence in completing tasks.[xiii]

Reducing the threat of negative stereotypes can improve performance.

When students are afraid of fulfilling a negative stereotype about the academic performance of their race, gender, or other group, their fear can prevent them from performing to the best of their ability, even if they do not believe the stereotype.[xiv] Studies show that stereotype threat can affect the performance of women in math and science,[xv] African Americans in a variety of academic contexts,[xiv] and even white men when told that they were being compared on a math test to Asian men.[xvi] Some studies have found that educators can reduce stereotype threat prior to high-stakes activities by having students write self-affirmations, reflecting on their strengths and personal values, which may help them focus on their capabilities and preparedness for the task at hand.[xvii] However, other studies in schools with a higher proportion of non-white students did not replicate these findings.[xviii]
An intervention that has been found to be effective involves asking students to provide demographic information after a task is complete in order to avoid priming them to think about race or gender.[xix]

Motivation and Learning Mindsets

Student motivation may be oriented internally or externally.

Intrinsic motivation is internally focused and is fueled by the inherent satisfaction one feels from completing a task or mastering a skill, while extrinsic motivation is often driven by external rewards and consequences.[xx] These two forms of motivation are not mutually exclusive. For example, identified regulation involves the conscious acceptance of a behavior as leading to personally-valued outcomes (eg. a student studying math late into the night even though she doesn’t want to because she hopes to become an engineer someday), and introjected regulation involves self-imposing rules in order to avoid guilt or to maintain self-esteem (eg. a student studying math because she wants people to keep thinking she is good at math).[xx] Intrinsic motivation is high during early childhood can decline over the course of schooling as the focus often shifts from play and exploration to extrinsic rewards and punishments.[xx] Some studies show that schools and online learning programs that focus on intrinsic satisfaction, rather than external rewards and performance goals, produce higher student motivation and engagement.[xxi]

Students are more likely to succeed when they view intelligence as something that can be developed through learning.

Some students view intelligence as a static and unchangeable entity (what is known as a fixed mindset), while others have an incremental theory of intelligence as something that can be developed through learning (known as a growth mindset).[xxii] These learning mindsets impact the academic achievement and motivation of students of all ages, including outcomes as diverse as students’ choice of course difficulty, their grades, their emotions about school and themselves, and their resilience in the face of challenges.[xxiii] Building growth mindsets by targeting students’ beliefs about learning, and changing how they interpret obstacles to their success, can increase academic achievement.[xxiv] There are a number of psychological interventions to achieve this, including activities as simple as teaching students about the brain’s ability to grow as it learns new information.[xxv]

Students do better when the focus is on mastering material rather than achieving performance goals.

According to goal orientation theory, there are two types of goals that drive motivation. Mastery goals focus on learning new material and skills, while performance goals focus on achieving tangible outcomes such as grades or awards. Research has found that when students set mastery goals, as opposed to performance goals, they have better learning outcomes and are more likely to develop self-regulated learning skills and positive classroom behaviors.[xxvi] This research suggests that performance goals may be less effective because students are drawn to compare themselves to others and to focus on avoiding failure as much as aiming for success.[xxvi]


Motivation & Autonomy
The Motivation & Autonomy subtopic explores how and why students are motivated to learn, and how motivation affects learning outcomes. In particular, several studies examine self-determination theory: a framework for understanding motivation that combines research on the importance of autonomy, competence, and social connections.

Academic Emotions
The Academic Emotions subtopic includes research on students’ emotions related to learning (with an emphasis on math and science), and how these are connected to academic achievement, motivation, and different learning strategies and environments.

Interest in Science
The Interest in Science subtopic explores factors that affect students’ level of interest in science topics and/or careers, including age, gender, and participation in science courses/programs.

Stereotype Threat
The Stereotype Threat subtopic explores how social stigmas related to race, gender, and other identifies can affect students’ academic outcomes and psychological, social, and emotional health.

Teacher & Student Approaches to Learning
The Teacher & Student Approaches to Learning subtopic includes research on how teachers and students approach the learning process, in both in-person and online learning environments. Studies also explore conceptions of learning.

Student Goals
The Student Goals subtopic explores how student goals relate to academic achievement and their motivation to learn.

The Self-Efficacy subtopic includes research on the factors that lead people to develop self-efficacy, or a belief in their ability to successfully complete a task. It also includes research on the connections between teachers’ self-efficacy and their teaching methods, and how students’ self-efficacy affects their learning, motivation, and achievement.

Metacognition & Self-Regulated Learning
The Metacognition & Self-Regulated Learning subtopic includes research on the metacognitive processes that help learners plan what and how to learn, and evaluate the outcomes of their learning.

Character & Morality Education
The Character & Morality Education subtopic explores research on the inclusion of philosophy, morality, virtue and related topics in education for students.

Language Learning & Motivation
The Language Learning & Motivation subtopic includes research on how and why students are motivated to learn a second language, including studies on instructional approaches for motivating language learners.

Explore this topic in the Network View or Chord View of the Research Map.

[i] Zimmerman, B. J. (2008). Investigating self-regulation and motivation: Historical background, methodological developments, and future prospects. American Educational Research Journal, 45(1), 166-183.
[ii] Zimmerman, B. J. (2008). Investigating self-regulation and motivation: Historical background, methodological developments, and future prospects. American Educational Research Journal, 45(1), 166-183.
Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American educational research journal, 29(3), 663-676.
[iii] Bandura, A. (1994). Self‐efficacy. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
[iv] Broussard, S. C., & Garrison, M. E. B. (2004). The relationship between classroom motivation and academic achievement in elementary school-aged children. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 33(2), 106–120.
Academic motivation and achievement among urban adolescents [Article]. Long JF, Monoi S, Harper B, Knoblauch D, Murphy PK in URBAN EDUC (2007).
Mega, C., Ronconi, L., & De Beni, R. (2014). What makes a good student? How emotions, self-regulated learning, and motivation contribute to academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 121.
[v] Does Math Self-Efficacy Mediate the Effect of the Perceived Classroom Environment on Standardized Math Test Performance? [Article] [13 different authors] in J EDUC PSYCHOL (2010)
Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Self-efficacy: An essential motive to learn. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 82-91.
[vi] Zimmerman, B.J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational Psychologist, 25, 3-17.
Zimmerman, Barry J., and Dale H. Schunk. “Self-regulated learning and performance.” Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (2011): 1-12.
Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in… [Article] Blair C, Razza RP, CHILD DEV (2007),
[vii] Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(2), 64-70.
[viii] Ciani KD, Middleton MJ, Summers JJ, Sheldon KM (2010). Buffering against performance classroom goal structures: The importance of autonomy support and classroom community [Review] , CONTEMP EDUC PSYCHOL.
[ix] O’Neill, J. (2000). SMART goals, SMART schools. Educational Leadership, 57(5), 46-50.
[x] A Framework for Designing Scaffolds That Improve Motivation and Cognition [Article] Belland BR, Kim C, Hannafin MJ, EDUC PSYCHOL-US (2013).
[xi] Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 774-795.
[xii] Henderlong Corpus, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2007). The effects of person versus performance praise on children’s motivation: Gender and age as moderating factors. Educational psychology, 27(4), 487-508.
[xiii] Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
Kamins, M. L., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental psychology, 35(3), 835.
[xiv] Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52(6): 613-629.
[xv] Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 35: 4-28.
[xvi] Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When White Men Can’t Do Math: Necessary and Sufficient Factors in Stereotype Threat.
Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 35: 29-46.
[xvii] Thoman, D. B., Smith, J. L., Brown, E. R., Chase, J., & Lee, J. Y. K. (2013). Beyond performance: A motivational experiences model of stereotype threat. Educational Psychology Review, 25: 211-243.
Appel, M., & Kronberger, N. (2012). Stereotypes and the achievement gap: Stereotype threat prior to test taking. Educational Psychology Review, 24: 609-635.
[xviii] Bratter, J, Rowley, K. & Chukhray, I. (2016). Does a Self-Affirmation Intervention Reduce Stereotype Threat in Black and Hispanic High Schools? Race and Social Problems. 8(4), 340-356.
[xix] Appel, M., & Kronberger, N. (2012).
[xx] Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67.
[xxi] Adolescents’ declining motivation to learn science: A follow-up study [Review] Vedder-Weiss D, Fortus D in J RES SCI TEACH (2012).
Buffering against performance classroom goal structures: The importance of autonomy support and classroom community [Review] Ciani KD, Middleton MJ, Summers JJ, Sheldon KM in CONTEMP EDUC PSYCHOL (2010).
Abramovich, S., Schunn, C., & Higashi, R. M. (2013). Are badges useful in education?: it depends upon the type of badge and expertise of learner. Educational Technology Research and Development, 61, 217-232.
[xxii] Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.
[xxiii]Romero et al., 2014. Yeager & Dweck, 2012.
[xxiv] Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological Science, doi: 0956797615571017.
[xxv] Paunesku et al., 2015. Yeager & Dweck, 2012.
[xxvi] Kaplan, A., & Maehr, M. L. (2007). The contributions and prospects of goal orientation theory. Educational Psychology Review, 19(2), 141-184.