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. Self-regulated learning involves the action of learning itself, as well as the metacognitive processes (the knowledge, monitoring, and regulation of one’s learning) that help learners plan what and how to learn, and evaluate the outcomes of their learning. Motivation is also closely connected to self-efficacy, a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task, as well as context, or the environment in which learning occurs. The processes for individual learners can vary by culture, race, and/or identities.
Motivation, self-efficacy, and self-regulated learning have all been linked to academic achievement. Educators, parents/caregivers, and students themselves are the main stakeholders in developing motivation.
The following sections highlight key findings from the research on learning mindsets and fostering student motivation. Research has uncovered many interventions that students, educators, and parents/caregivers can use to impact learning. Take some time to explore the different concepts below by clicking on the hyperlinked text.
Intrinsic motivation is internally focused and fueled by the inherent satisfaction one feels from completing a task or mastering a skill. Extrinsic motivation is often driven by external rewards and consequences. These two forms of motivation are not mutually exclusive. Motivation is a spectrum and extrinsic motivation can become internalized and also vary based on the person and context. Intrinsic motivation is high during early childhood but can decline over the course of schooling as the focus often shifts from play and exploration to extrinsic rewards and punishments. 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.
Some students view intelligence as a static and unchangeable entity (what is known as a fixed mindset), while others have a theory of intelligence as something that can be developed through learning (known as a growth mindset). 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. Building growth mindsets by targeting students’ beliefs about learning, and changing how they interpret obstacles to their success, can increase academic achievement. A number of interventions help achieve growth mindsets, including simple activities such as teaching students about the brain’s ability to grow as it learns new information.
A positive school climate—where students feel a sense of safety and belonging—further improves academic achievement and engagement. The learning environment itself plays a critical role in a student’s ability to learn and thrive. To foster such environments, educators and school leaders should create school and classroom structures that encourage secure relationships.
According to goal orientation theory, two types of goals 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. This research suggests that performance goals may be less effective because students draw comparisons with others and focus on avoiding failure as much as aiming for success.
Students encompass a range of learners. We acknowledge that students at different grade bands have unique needs and recommend visiting the Learner Variability Navigator to better understand factors and strategies for successful learning.
ChallengeSuccess (website with resources and strategies directed toward students)
Teachers and parents can indirectly influence motivation by satisfying psychological needs, including competency, belonging, and autonomy. Research finds that teachers are more influential than parents in motivating students to learn due in part to the number of tools and ways teachers can work with for student motivation, including the ability for teachers to explain why a particular topic is important for students, facilitating the perceived meaningfulness of certain tasks, and providing high-quality feedback. While family involvement and support are necessary, they alone are not enough. Peers can also play a role in engagement and disengagement as students get older and experience developmental and social changes.
Opportunities for autonomy can increase motivation and self-regulated learning. Because of its connection to intrinsic motivation and mastery goals, student autonomy can help build motivation and self-regulated learning skills. Giving students choices, 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. 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.
Praise can enhance motivation when it is sincere, specific, and encourages autonomy and self-efficacy; however, it also has the potential to undermine intrinsic motivation. 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 often increases feelings of competence, the confidence that the student can learn the skill, and is more effective than person praise, which focuses on the individual, such as calling someone “smart” or a “good student.” 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. False praise, when one is praised even when the effort is not effective, can also be damaging to motivation since students know when praise is false as they are aware when they don’t make progress on a task. Supporting students’ learning strategies and showing how those strategies lead to success are effective ways to promote motivation—when students feel stuck on a particular task they understand it’s not just about more effort, but considering new strategies as well.
A growth mindset suggests that intelligence is malleable; a student can learn, make mistakes, and see challenges as an avenue for improvement. While debates have arisen in the research community about whether growth mindset interventions should be used to motivate students, a recent study confirms they can work in supportive learning environments.
When students are afraid of fulfilling a negative stereotype about the academic performance of their race, gender, or other groups, their fear can prevent them from performing to the best of their ability, even if they do not believe the stereotype. Students across many identities can experience stereotype threat. For example, studies show that stereotype threat can affect the performance of women in math and science, boys in language arts, as well as African Americans in a variety of academic contexts.
Some teaching practices can mitigate negative stereotype threats and support student motivation. Culturally responsive practice, a research-based approach that connects students’ cultures, languages, and life experiences to learning in school, helps to challenge dominant narratives about students from historically excluded communities and groups. This approach allows teachers to understand their students and what motivates them. It highlights the importance of understanding and respecting students’ various backgrounds and cultural heritage.
Educators include district superintendents, principals, classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, coaches, informal teachers, and more.
How Educators Can Foster Student Motivation (blog post)
PERTS Resources (website with free educator resources to promote student engagement)
Mindset Scholars Network (research library to search for academic research on student experiences)
Student Engagement During the Pandemic: Results of a National Survey (research report)
Motivating Students – Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University (website with free educator resources to promote student motivation)
Along with teachers, parents/caregivers are the main influencers for student motivation and homework engagement. Parent involvement in homework is one way to influence student motivation and school engagement. Parents who help with homework play a critical role in encouraging learning as well as scaffolding strategies for time management and problem-solving.
Parental autonomy support, the parental encouragement of students’ problem-solving and decision-making, is vital to adolescents’ development, learning, and engagement. Parents and caregivers who provide a home environment that supports autonomy allow students to solve problems actively, think independently, and nurture a sense of competency. This support of autonomy is beneficial to students’ learning engagement and motivation.
Family partnerships and involvement help build trust between schools and home, which also increases student academic success. In the wake of COVID-19 and the shift to online learning, family engagement has proven to be a major factor in student motivation. Parents can play a critical role by ensuring their children follow the curriculum and by emotionally supporting their children to sustain their motivation.
Families come in different shapes and sizes. We refer to parents/caregivers to acknowledge that adult support systems are diverse.
Culturally Responsive Practice – Learner Variability Project (website with resources)
How Parents Can Instill a Growth Mindset at Home (website with resources)
Paths to Success: How to Jumpstart your Child’s Future (website with resources)