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Lesson 2.6

What Motivates Students?

Students will learn if you pay them – but there’s a catch.

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Students have an important role to play in their own educational destiny. Learning can be a tough climb, though. What motivates students to learn and succeed?

Children can get excited about learning for all kinds of great reasons. But learning involves effort, and the world is full of things that want attention. Great teachers are masters at making learning engaging and relevant, especially when supported by compelling curricular materials.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Broadly, there are two main approaches to motivating students to learn: get them interested… or get them to do it anyway. Researchers have written much about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in education.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. When a student is fascinated with a subject, motivation to learn about it arises naturally. Children that memorize baseball statistics are not doing so because they will be tested on it. Education researcher Sugata Mitra has documented some of the amazing accomplishments made by children in India who band together to learn subjects that interest them.

There are two main approaches to making students motivated to learn: get them interested, or get them to do it anyway

Extrinsic motivation (which comes from without) is always second-best, but it is also important. The classic extrinsic motivator in school is the letter grade: Never mind if it’s interesting, do your homework! Parent bribes fit in the same category.

Sometimes, extrinsic motivators can help a student fake-it-'til-they-make-it. They overcome a student's initial reluctance to try an activity in order to give them a chance to take pleasure in learning it.

Extrinsic motivators can also establish and maintain community norms. For example, KIPP, a charter school network, developed a system of extrinsic rewards called paychecks to set and reinforce clear expectations for student behavior. Many educators have adopted exit tickets, a related approach, to encourage or enforce participation.

Daniel H. Pink's book Drive summarizes research about motivation, and makes a persuasive argument about the risks of relying heavily on extrinsic motivation. Though originally intended for a business audience, his work has found significant readership in the education sector. Prior to Pink's book, the most notable work in this vein was Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn.

Of course, just being interested in a subject doesn't mean a student will learn it. Motivation that gets you started can be different from the complex factors that keep you going.

Not Yet

Carol Dweck describes student motivation in education as a matter of mindset. When students believe that they can learn anything with effort, they can sustain their attention and energy, and accomplish amazing things. Dweck calls this a growth mindset.

On the other hand, if a student believes that their capacity to learn is fixed, they limit themselves. Statements like "I'm bad at math" or "I'm not a good student" have a way of making themselves true. Dweck points to evidence that teachers and parents can influence students' mindsets by changing the way that they present challenges.

What interests students?

There is ample evidence that participation in sports and the arts engages young people in their schools, motivates them to do better academically, and teaches them important life skills.

One reform effort that has shown success at motivating high school students is linked learning. This approach blends rigorous academics with technical education to prepare students for college and career. Evaluations have shown students in these programs have improved skills in communication and collaboration, as well as being more likely to graduate.

As discussed in the Ed100 lesson on education technology, schools are moving toward technology that can help personalize learning in multiple ways. Tech can present each student with material that is neither too easy (thus dull) nor too advanced (thus frustrating). A.I. shows promise as a tutoring aid to help students grapple with learning or practicing material.


Teachers can awaken motivation in students by presenting material in an interesting way, but consider the competition! Countless distractions are always just a click away. What makes students choose to do the work of learning when they could easily choose to do something else?

Part of the answer is relationships, as master educator Rita Pierson explains in this brief video:

Students choose to learn partly because the work they do matters to someone who matters to them. Parents, peers, tutors, and teachers all play a role in how students feel about the work of learning.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to implement distance learning, teachers faced an entirely new challenge: how to develop and sustain relationships with students and among students in ways that could support learning. Connecting with a large class is difficult in person; through a screen, it feels like bad TV. Most teachers and schools quickly realized that back-to-back video lectures to a full class would be exhausting and ineffective, although virtual breakout groups and mentoring improved the process somewhat.

Last updated October, 2023
Prior updates include:
July 2022
August 2021
August 2020
May 2017


Which of the following might increase students’ “intrinsic motivation”? Choose the best answer.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 22, 2021 at 8:06 pm
I appreciate this lesson and believe in it. I also believe it is important for us as parents, educators, staff to model this behavior in our everyday actions with our students. We teach out students by exemplifying it.
user avatar
Peter McManus March 7, 2021 at 7:39 am
Do we do enough to teach students WHY they need to learn something? At the beginning of every lesson, every enough time spent explaining how the information that will be taught can be used in their lives? It seems like if we do this, it would increase the chances that those connections are made to the material before the lessons begin. It might also help distinguish the really important material from the relatively minor material. For example, knowledge of fractions is used every day by anyone having to measure something less than a whole, and fraction vocabulary is used frequently throughout the day. Tell a four-year-old they can only have half a cookie, and they know exactly what you mean. Prime numbers, while cool and contributes to a basic understanding of the theory of mathematical understanding, isn't something we use in such a tangible way as fractions.
user avatar
amy su November 5, 2020 at 8:47 pm
There is limited electives and sports and now more so with distance learning
user avatar
Alan Ham July 23, 2020 at 10:21 am
I feel like staying motivated is the most important thing for a high schooler because it brings them perseverance.
user avatar
francisco molina August 13, 2019 at 2:30 am
One of the most interesting activities are the science projects contest.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 11, 2019 at 1:50 pm
Learning to do things for extrinsic reasons of one sort or another is part of the socialization and maturing process for children and young adults. So I believe that articulating to students that learning to cope with extrinsics is useful and perhaps teach them coping mechanisms (be efficient at the things you don't love but need to do for example so they are over more quickly).
user avatar
Robert Crowell May 2, 2018 at 9:25 am
Always a tough balance. Assigning projects that students find interesting is great, but if they do not have the foundational skills to access and participate in the project it is meaningless. However, if you spend all of your time focused on learning skills in isolation, you will lose the students attention.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 12:13 pm
Assignments, which allow students to choose topics, is internal motivation because their choice is theirs!
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 25, 2016 at 12:05 pm
If you show a student what exemplary work looks like, does it help the student improve? Maybe not. In research by Todd Rogers of Harvard and Avi Feller of UC Berkeley, a significant number of students presented with examples of great work responded by giving up.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 6, 2015 at 10:57 am
Research from the University of Pennsylvania adds "Self Discipline" into the mix for student success.
"Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents
"We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement."
user avatar
Bita May 24, 2019 at 12:58 pm
Similarly here: What's Not On The Test: The Overlooked Factors That Determine Success
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 14, 2015 at 11:17 am
An interesting insight on motivation is provided by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who says that children are more motivated when they are told their intelligence or talents can grow and expand.
Video: Developing a Growth Mindset:
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 12:15 pm
The teachers' views of their students and expectations are key! Remember PYGMALION IN THE CLASSROOM?
user avatar
harplits March 16, 2015 at 2:04 pm
As a strong proponent of the arts and experiential learning (think field trips) I find it a travesty when these opportunities are not made available to students. I should not have had to "bribe" the band teacher to get my son enrolled in music. How many other students are disenfranchised because their mother didn't go to bat for them? I also don't think the role of providing arts or a music teacher for a school should be relegated to the PTA. That makes arts education too capricious.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 16, 2015 at 5:39 pm
Thanks, Harplits: based on your comment, you will be interested in the statistics about arts education in Lesson 6.8, which quantifies the problem. Especially in California.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:07 am
Learning should not always be about FUN. Doing chores in the home isn't FUN yet it is a necessary skill to learn and important to maintaining a healthy home environment. That said, teachers need to motivate kids to learn content and make it relevant so they know that even if they don't think they will need that particular skill, it benefits them overall in the long term. Perhaps they don't need geometry right now or in the near future, however they may need to access that information down the road. I was most motivated to learn when my teachers showed genuine care and concern for me and told me why I may need that information down the line (of life). For example, learning to write proper business letters in high school meant nothing to me, however now I write them all the time in my profession. At least I know I was taught how to do it so I can.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 12:16 pm
Children do love to do chores. When teaching school, my children loved to vacuum and sweep the room! All of them!
user avatar
Paul Muench October 31, 2014 at 8:18 pm
What came first the chicken or the egg? Are we motivated to learn or do we learn to be motivated? Maybe its just all a positive feedback loop, which is why early learning is so important.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 12:20 pm
Agreed! Children begin as curiosity seekers, motivated to understand their environment. Their discoveries feed their motivation, which impels more discovery.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 April 30, 2017 at 12:27 pm
The great Russian Psychologist Vygotsky found that learning and motivation are a duality!
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 15, 2014 at 9:42 am
When deeply motivated, a small percentage of students may need little but access to the internet, a team to work with, and challenges that stretch them. This is the big idea behind the radical École 42, featured here in Venture Beat.
user avatar
Ellen Moir March 16, 2011 at 10:53 pm
At New Teacher Center (NTC), we know how critical it is for teachers to be able to draw their students into learning. In order to do so, teachers must know their students well and use what they know to engage and connect with those students in the classroom.

At NTC, our expert teacher-mentors help new teachers become better faster to improve student learning. These mentors support new teachers in motivating their students by:

- teaching teachers to regularly, systematically, and thoughtfully “diagnose,” examine, and study students’ assets, strengths, interests, and needs in analyzing student work, and using the results of this analysis to plan differentiated, strategically targeted lessons

- introducing them to a range of materials and resources that meet students’ wide ranges of skill levels, interests, and needs

- teaching teachers how to lesson plan and supporting them in planning lessons that incorporate a range of active engagement strategies that keep students stimulated, challenged, focused, productive, and involved

- teaching teachers how to connect one-on-one with students, especially those students who seem least likely to want to connect, in ways that are emotionally as well as academically supportive

- helping teachers develop habits of mind that enable them to consider students’ disengagement as a puzzle, a challenge, an invitation to think more deeply and work more creatively to develop new ways of teaching and connecting with students who may seem to not want to learn

Ultimately, our mentors help new teachers tap into their students' interests, needs, and prior knowledge in order to create a meaningful learning experience for those students.
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