Motivation in the Classroom

Aparna Ramanujam

Picture a middle-school classroom. There are many children of similar ages, each with their own set of unique skills and varying levels of interest in academic performance. When talking to the science teacher after class, you notice that she talks about each student differently - she gushes about Julie’s motivation to learn and her interest in science. When talking about Daniel, the teacher expresses concern that he does not seem as motivated in academic performance as he ought to be. How does the teacher arrive at this conclusion and gauge a student’s motivation?

These conclusions can be drawn from several observations. One of them is how attentiveness is perceived by the teacher. This teacher has noticed that Julie displays an exceptional amount of attention in science class and often talks about being a scientist, so she considers Julie to be a scientifically-motivated child. Another indicator of motivation is the child’s eagerness and commitment to engage with the material. In Daniel’s case, the teacher notices that he is the slowest to complete assignments and does not seem to enjoy science projects. Thus, she comes to the conclusion that Daniel is not a scientifically-motivated child.

In both Julie’s and Daniel’s cases, their motivation is a crucial factor for how they are assessed in the classroom. Psychology defines motivation as the process that helps initiate, guide, and maintain goal-oriented behaviors. As we observed in both of the above cases, we can infer a person’s motivation by observing their behavior and interpreting it in a particular way.

The motivational theory most relevant to our classroom situation is incentive theory. Here, motivation is divided into two types - intrinsic and extrinsic.. Intrinsic motivation refers to the innate desire to seek out new learning experiences, and is independent of  any external pressures or rewards to seek out these experiences. For example, Julie’s desire to be a scientist stems from her general interest in science and the world around her, which translates to her performance in science. Extrinsic motivation refers to external agents, usually rewards or punishments, that influence the drive to learn or seek new experiences. In intrinsically motivated behaviors, the reward is the activity itself.

The relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is best represented as two ends of a spectrum. Extrinsic motivation varies greatly depending on the extent of the autonomy present in each situation. To illustrate this point, let’s fast forward to when Julie and Daniel are in high school.

For Julie, paying for college is not in her family’s means, so she realizes she has to receive a full scholarship in order to fulfill her dream of becoming a scientist. She now has to compete against other applicants for the scholarship, and in order to do that, she has to get great grades. Julie is now heavily influenced by external agents such as grades, competition, and money - she is no longer only motivated by her love for science. Daniel is also considering pursuing science in college, but only because his parents and teachers believe that a a degree in STEM will afford better employment opportunities than studying English, which is what he really wants to do. In this situation, Julie is influenced by external factors, but still retains her choice and her autonomy in that she chooses to study science because she enjoys it. By contrast, Daniel is only motivated extrinsically - he has no internal drive to study science since he lacks autonomy in this situation.

Studies have shown that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can have very different effects on student learning. Nearly two decades ago,  Ryan and Connell (1989) found that extrinsically-motivated students who had very little autonomy over their choices displayed less interest, value, and effort while learning. These students also displayed a higher tendency to blame others for negative outcomes. Extrinsically-motivated students with greater autonomy over their choices (such as Julie) showed greater effort, but also had higher anxiety levels and displayed poor mechanisms to cope with failure. In contrast, intrinsically-motivated students showed greater interest, enjoyment, and feelings of competence, and also displayed healthy coping mechanisms when stumbling across obstacles. These effects are also different with respect to age - recent studies provide evidence to support the theory that extrinsic motivation does not have negative effects on achievement in elementary-age children, but it does impair achievement and academic performance in older children.

Given the relationship between motivation and achievement, how do we encourage positive motivational behaviors in individuals? We can begin by looking at evidence supporting various influences on the development or suppression of each kind of motivation.

A study by Murayama, Matsumoto et al. provided evidence suggesting that performance-based reward systems can actually undermine the development of intrinsic motivation. Participants participated in a task that captured their interest and required some effort, and were offered monetary rewards for successful performance. In another round, they were told they would no longer receive rewards for success. Results showed that the brain regions responsible for coding value showed decreased activity once the rewards were stopped, as did the brain region responsible for increased cognitive engagement.  Essentially, this study revealed that individuals were motivated to learn while receiving rewards, but stopping these rewards significantly decreased their motivation to learn.

In another set of studies, researchers looked at how students’ beliefs about themselves affected their performance when faced with challenges. One of the most popular theories in this space discusses how people’s beliefs about their intellectual ability can affect the way they learn. This research suggests that people who subscribe mostly to entity theories of intelligence believe that intelligence is mostly fixed. These people tend to pursue goals/tasks that help them appear capable and are quick to give up if the outcome of their effort is negative. Contrastingly, incremental theorists are people who believe that intelligence is something that can be developed with time and experience. These individuals pursue tasks and goals that help them master skills and embrace challenges, even if it seems like their efforts first beget negative results. Those who believe in incremental theories of intelligence tend to be more intrinsically motivated than those who believe in entity theories, since their interest in learning makes them more likely to pursue mastery. Importantly, these individuals develop better coping mechanisms to deal with failure since they don’t necessarily view their performance as a measure of their ability.

So how can we apply the findings from these studies to encourage intrinsic motivation in students?

In 2002, Aronson, Fried and Good taught incremental theory to a college students, and observed that these students actually earned better grades after the training compared to students who hadn’t been trained. A similar intervention conducted in high schools also showed the same effect - the trained adolescents (i.e. ones who were taught about incremental theory) scored higher on achievement tests than their untrained peers. This is heartening news, because it tells us that teaching students how to view their intelligence has real effects on improving learning outcomes.

The researchers also noticed that these incremental-theory-trained students were making different impressions on their teachers (relative to before they had received their training). These students’ teachers now reported that the students were ‘demonstrating greater attention in class’ and ‘displayed eagerness and unusually high commitment’ to their learning. (Think back to how Julie and Daniel’s science teacher gauged the motivation levels of her students!)

Other studies have shown that specific kinds of encouragement from teachers and parents promote intrinsic motivation in students. For instance, punishments have been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation and increase extrinsic motivation in students, regardless of age. In another study, researchers found that the best way to encourage middle-school children to read was to offer them a new book (or another reading-related reward like a bookmark) as a reward for finishing a book. These studies, when considered in conjunction with the performance-based reward study we discussed earlier, suggest that a good way to foster intrinsic motivation in students is to create a learning situation in which the activity itself is the reward, and negative learning outcomes are not penalized by external agents.

Research has helped us identify the existence of different kinds of motivation and the possible factors influencing their development. Although more research is necessary to better understand the more nuanced features of motivation and its influences on learning, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a large number of currently-practiced policies in schools may not have the desired effect in promoting positive learning outcomes in students. Going forward, it is important to ensure that policy mechanisms develop alongside scientific progress in order to ensure that research can be adequately implemented in the classroom, thus ensuring a better educational environment for every child.

About the Author: 
Aparna is a senior studying Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania, with a concentration in Cognitive Neuroscience. She is also double-minoring in Psychology and Computational Neuroscience. Aparna has volunteered for the Changing Brain Lab since Fall 2017, and will be graduating this summer to pursue an interdisciplinary fellowship (teaching, education policy and research) in India for the next two years. Any questions can be emailed to