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An unmotivated student is unlikely to learn much at school. But there’s a wide range of opinion on what parents and teachers can do to instill that motivation. Some swear by rewards and prizes. Others lavish praise or dole it out judiciously. 

A team of Canadian and Australian researchers decided to take a scientific approach and comb through classroom studies across the world on sparking student motivation. They found 144 studies involving nearly 80,000 students, from elementary school through university. 

Two conclusions jumped out. First, teachers are far more influential than parents in motivating students to learn. “If you want your students to be motivated at school, parents are important but they’re not enough,” said Julien Bureau, associate professor at Université Laval in Quebec and lead author of the study. “The teacher has more tools to work with for student motivation.” 

The second conclusion is about how to foster the kind of internal or intrinsic motivation that really helps children and young adults succeed in school. The way that teachers and parents influence motivation is an indirect one, by satisfying three psychological needs, according to a theory that Bureau explained to me. The three needs are competency, belonging and autonomy. 

In Bureau’s analysis of the nearly 150 underlying studies, a sense of competence rose to the top for helping kids feel motivated to learn. (By contrast, a sense of autonomy was more important for feeling motivated on the job.)  A feeling of competence doesn’t mean that students already know how to do something but that they have confidence that they’re capable of learning it.  Students who have a strong sense of competence are likely to think that they’ll get better grades if they study or they’ll succeed if they do an exercise. 

The meta-analysis, “Pathways to Student Motivation: A Meta-Analysis of Antecedents of Autonomous and Controlled Motivations,” was published online in September 2021 in the peer-reviewed journal Review of Educational Research. 

In an earlier February 2021 study, Bureau and his colleagues found that internal motivation matters. They calculated that two types of internal motivation were most strongly associated with success in school, persistence and well-being. By contrast, motivation that is driven by a desire to obtain rewards or avoid punishment was the least beneficial and associated with lower well-being. 

“We’ve proven which kinds of motivations are the most important and now we can try to educate parents and teachers to have more of an impact on them,” said Bureau.

The concrete things that teachers can do may seem unrelated to student motivation at first glance. For example, Bureau recommends that teachers listen to the thoughts and feelings of students and respond to them with empathy. Another suggestion is to explain rules and requirements so that students can understand why they’re being asked to do them. And he recommends that teachers give students choices and allow them to personalize assignments. For example, teachers might allow students to come up with their own writing topics or devise their own scientific experiments. 

Motivation is a notoriously difficult thing to measure and study. The conclusions here are based on what students say on survey questionnaires. In the underlying studies, researchers weren’t able to conduct experiments with control groups and say whether some approaches are actually causing motivation to grow. Instead, they focus on how certain self-reported feelings are associated with other self-reported feelings and, ultimately, academic achievement.

Bureau describes the three needs — competency, belonging and autonomy — as “kindling” for intrinsic or internal motivation. “If you start doing a task,” he said, “and it’s a new task, and you feel competent in it, and you feel connected with others, and you feel autonomous in doing the task, you’ve chosen to do it. You’ll have fun doing it. You’ll want to do it more. And you’ll be interested in learning.”

There’s a tension between efficiently teaching students the material you need to teach them and boosting their psychological motivation to learn.  It’s not always practical to allow students to customize every assignment and feel that they have choices.

“It’s very difficult,” said Bureau. “But if you don’t plan your lessons in ways that will really make kids learn. Yes, you check the box of things that you’ve covered in your class, but what have they learned?”

This story about student motivation was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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