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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 section below highlights key findings from the research on student motivation.

Key Findings

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.[vii] 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.[vii]

Student motivation may be oriented internally or externally.

Intrinsic motivation is internally focused and fueled by the inherent satisfaction one feels from completing a task or mastering a skill, while extrinsic motivation is driven by external rewards and consequences. The two forms of motivation are not mutually exclusive; students are often driven both by the self-satisfaction of acing an assignment and the praise they receive for a good grade. Intrinsic motivation is high during early childhood but declines over the course of schooling as the focus often shifts from play and exploration to extrinsic rewards and punishments.[viii] 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.[ix]

Praise is more effective when geared toward performance, not the student as a person.

Praise can enhance intrinsic motivation when it is sincere, specific, and encourages autonomy and self-efficacy.[x] Performance praise that emphasizes effort and outcomes is more effective than person praise that focuses on the individual, such as calling someone “smart” or a “good student.”[xi] 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.[xii]

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

Because of its connection to intrinsic motivation and mastery goals, student autonomy can help build motivation and self-regulated learning skills.[xiv] Giving students a choice about what work to prioritize during open study time or allowing them 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.[xv] 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.[xvi]

Interpersonal relationships are vital to motivation.

While it is important for learners to develop autonomy, interpersonal relationships are also fundamental to student motivation and self-efficacy.[xvii] Beliefs about the importance of schooling and learning are passed to children socially, starting with caregivers and continuing with educators and peers.[xviii] Relationships also lay the foundation for what students believe about their own abilities (self-efficacy) and self-worth. Students’ feelings of connectedness and relatedness to their parents, teachers, and peers have been shown to play a role in academic motivation and engagement.[xix]


Bullying, Aggression & Harassment

The Bullying, Aggression & Harassment subtopic describes bullying, aggression, and harassment in educational settings, and their effects on students. It also includes evaluations of programs designed to prevent these acts.

Parent/Child Attachment

The Parent/Child Attachment subtopic includes studies on parent-child attachment at infancy and in childhood, and how attachment is related to children’s behavioral and emotional development.

Instruction & Early Learning

The Instruction & Early Learning subtopic explores research on how the type of instruction and learning environment is related to student outcomes in preschool and kindergarten.

Grade Retention

The Grade Retention subtopic includes research on the effects of grade retention (repeating/”holding back” students) in the early grades on different student outcomes, such as social/emotional development and academic achievement.

Early Intervention Programs

The Early Intervention Programs subtopic includes research on the outcomes of different early intervention program models. Studies in this subtopic also discuss therapist/provider professional preparation and recommendations for building relationships with families.

Parent Involvement

The Parent Involvement subtopic includes research on the connection between parent or family involvement and student academic achievement.

Gender, Race & Ethnic Identity

The Gender, Race & Ethnic Identity subtopic explores various ways students’ racial and/or ethnic identity, and experiences of discrimination affect their academic outcomes and psychological, social, and emotional health.

Academic Emotions

The Academic Emotions subtopic includes research on students’ emotions related to learning, and how these are connected to academic achievement, motivation, and different learning strategies/environments.

Motivation & Learning

The Motivation & Learning subtopic explores how and why students are motivated to learn, and how motivation affects learning outcomes. In particular, several studies examine how students’ degree of autonomy and control over their own learning is related to motivation.


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.

Student Goals

The Student Goals subtopic explores how student goals relate to academic achievement and their motivation to learn. It includes studies on how student characteristics such as gender, culture, and ethnicity influence their goals and achievements.

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.


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[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] Kaplan, A., & Maehr, M. L. (2007). The contributions and prospects of goal orientation theory. Educational Psychology Review, 19(2), 141-184.
[viii] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic Definitions and new directions. I, 25, 54-67.
[ix] 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.
[x] 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.
[xi] 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.
[xii] 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.
[xiii] Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(2), 64-70.
[xiv] Buffering against performance classroom goal structures: The importance of autonomy support and classroom community [Review] Ciani KD, Middleton MJ, Summers JJ, Sheldon KM, CONTEMP EDUC PSYCHOL (2010),
[xv] O’Neill, J. (2000). SMART goals, SMART schools. Educational Leadership, 57(5), 46-50.
[xvi] A Framework for Designing Scaffolds That Improve Motivation and Cognition[Article] Belland BR, Kim C, Hannafin MJ, EDUC PSYCHOL-US (2013),
[xvii] Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues, and… [Review] Martin AJ, Dowson M in REV EDUC RES (2009)
[xviii] Parental Involvement in Predicting School Motivation: Similar and Differential Effects Across Ethnic Groups [Article] Fan WH, Williams CM, Wolters CA, J EDUC RES (2012),
[xix] Furrer, Carrie, and Ellen Skinner. “Sense of relatedness as a factor in children’s academic engagement and performance.” Journal of educational psychology 95.1 (2003): 148.