Virginia Commonwealth University
February 5, 2013
Bookmark and Share

Kira Austin, Ph. D. Candidate, Lanett Brailey, M.A., Kara McCulloch, M.Ed., Sandy Wilberger, M.Ed.

Motivation. A word frequently used in the field of education. Parents and teachers often report, “He/she lacks motivation.” For a term so commonly used, what exactly does it mean? Why is student motivation so important and what can you do to increase it?

Unmotivated tudents in classroom

What strategies would you use to motivate these students? Refer to Figure 1 to find a strategy that works for you!

According to Princeton University’s (2010) dictionary, motivation is “the psychological feature that arouses an organism to action toward a desired goal,” (para. 1). Even with that definition, the concept is not very clear. In fact, researchers have spent their entire lives trying to concisely describe what motivation is, what makes us decide to do things, or what makes us tick. Some suggest that motivation for our students takes two primarily different forms: intrinsic and extrinsic (DeLong and Winter, 2002). Intrinsic motivation is activated when students are engaged in learning because the subject fascinates them, they see how the content is relevant to their lives or they desire the sense of accomplishment in mastering it. Intrinsic motivation is typically self-sustaining, but it may be hard to foster this form in students. Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, may arise from societal expectations, future earning potential, or grades. At times, extrinsic motivators can more quickly bring about behavior changes, but they may not produce long-term change and can even sometimes inadvertently reduce motivation. Everyone is motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic forces, and you may need to reflect on your practices to foster both forms to help your students be successful.

Why should motivation matter to you as a teacher?

You want students to be engaged in learning, yet the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (2004) found that upwards of 40 percent of high school students reported being disengaged from learning, inattentive and bored with school. Unlike some other mental processes or states, motivation affects every area of school. Even from an early age, motivation can influence how students approach school, how much time they dedicate to studying, how they relate to their teachers and peers, and how they perform on assessments. Lack of motivation can lead not only to withdrawing from the content, but even withdrawing from school altogether. When surveyed, 70 percent of high school dropouts reported lack of motivation as being a cause for dropping out (Bridgeland, Dilulio and Morison, 2006).

What does motivation look like in the classroom?

Our level of motivation is highly influenced by the environment (Mitchell and Daniels, 2003). As a teacher, there are many environments you can’t control, such as the students’ home life, their workplace, or their social network. However, as the CEO of your classroom, you can control your classroom environment and greatly influence your students’ level of motivation while in your class.

You may have been familiar with viewing motivation in a framework of intrinsic versus extrinsic, but that conceptualization doesn’t fully explain what motivation looks like in the classroom. You may find it more helpful to view classroom motivation through the “four dimensions” framework, which researchers have used to articulate four major elements of motivation that can be found within the classroom (Murray, 2011; Pintrich, 2003; Ryan and Deci, 2000). The four dimensions are competence, autonomy/control, interest/value and relatedness. Usher and Kober (2012) at the Center on Education Policy have done a wonderful job of summarizing the four dimensions in an easy-to-read table:

Figure 1

Four Dimensions of Motivation

Dimensions Indicators
(Am I capable?)
The student believes he or she has the ability to complete the task.
(Can I control it?)
The student feels in control by seeing a direct link between his or her actions and an outcome. The student retains autonomy by having some choice about whether or how to undertake the task.
(Does it interest me? Is it worth the effort?)
The student has some interest in the task or sees the value of completing it.
(What do others think?)
Completing the task brings the student social rewards, such as a sense of belonging to a classroom or other desired social group or approval from a person of social importance to the student.

Usher, A., and Kober, N. (2012). Background paper 1- What is motivation and why does it matter? (pp. 3-5). PDF download retrieved from

What can you do to increase motivation?

Just being aware of the dimensions of motivation is not enough. As an educator, you may have students who display weak motivation and you will need to use a variety of strategies within your classroom to engage and motivate them. Although all four dimensions of motivation are intertwined, depending on the student and the given activity or situation, one dimension of motivation may be more prominent than the others. Keeping this in mind, you will want to develop lessons and activities that activate all four dimensions of motivation to reach all the students in your classroom. In the remainder of this article we present definitions of the four dimensions and examples of strategies you can adopt to increase student motivation.


If students feel that they have the skills to complete a specific task, they are more likely to engage in the task. For example, a high school student might be more likely to complete a complex multiplication problem than a third grade student because the former is more confident in her math skills. However, if a student lacks competence motivation, there are a variety of strategies you can use to support this dimension. One strategy is scaffolding instruction, where you provide supports to increase skills in which the student is weak and then over time remove the supports (Blackburn, 2005). Scaffolding allows for students to build confidence through personal success. Examples of scaffolding supports include graphic organizers, direct instruction, visual supports, cooperative group work and task analysis. Be mindful of using teacher language that conveys faith in students’ abilities and intentions. For more information on teacher language see our previous article, “Building positive relationships with students.”


When students feel they have control over a situation and their level of interaction with a particular task, they are also more likely to be motivated. Giving a child the choice between doing the dishes and taking out the trash is more likely to get him motivated to make a choice than telling him that he has to do his chores. Within the classroom, provide students with options for assignments. Consider the Monty Hall approach, “Door number one, two, or three.” The content is the same (three doors), but the items vary in design and format. Also, offer multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge. Differentiation and allowing for personal expression is the key. Examples include book reports, poster presentations, use of technology, choice boards, and dramatic interpretations.


Students are also more motivated when they find the topic relevant and meaningful to their lives. This doesn’t mean that all of your lessons have to tie into pop culture, but it does mean that you have to be able to demonstrate to students how they will use the information in their lives. To activate this dimension of motivation, create activities that embrace student interest, individuality, and various learning styles. Examples include the use of manipulatives, movement, and real world relevance and application.


Finally, peer pressure or social norms can have a great influence on student motivation. Social experiments have shown that if a group of people all begins to engage in a particular behavior, such as facing a different direction in an elevator, most of us are likely to follow suit (Zimbardo, 2012). This phenomenon can work to your advantage in the classroom. If you establish a classroom culture of high expectations and active engagement, it is likely that the majority of the class will accept those norms. To enhance this dimension of motivation in your classroom, consider creating lessons that are interactive and allow for movement. Examples include creating community through holding morning meetings, assigning cooperative group work, establishing roles and responsibilities, using open-ended questions. and facilitating group discussions/debates. Some students may be seeking social reinforcement in the form of verbal or nonverbal feedback. Positive feedback can come in multiple forms such as verbal praise, a smile, a high five, a sticker or lunch with a teacher or peer.

Each of your students might be more motivated by one particular dimension than the others. Through careful observation you can begin to determine which dimensions are the most powerful motivators for your students. As an educator, you can have a dramatic impact on student motivation within your classroom. You control the activities and structure of your classroom and can support students in the areas of motivation in which they are weak. The next time you find yourself lamenting over a student’s “lack of motivation,” remember the four different dimensions of motivation and purposefully choose a strategy to implement within your classroom.


Blackburn, B. R. (2005). Classroom motivation from A to Z: How to engage your students in learning. New York: Eye on Education, Inc.

Bridgeland, J. M., DiIulio, J. J., & Morison, K. B. (March, 2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises, LLC.

Delong, M., & Winter, D. (2002). Strategies for motivating students. Learning to teach and teaching to learn mathematics: Resources for professional development (pp. 159-168). Washington, D.C.: Mathematical Association of America.

Mitchell, T. R. & Daniels, D. (2003). Motivation. In W. C. Borman, D. R. Ilgen, & R. J. Klimoski (Eds.), Handbook of Psychology, Vol. 12: Industrial Organizational Psychology (pp. 225-254). New York: Wiley.

Murray, A. (2011). Montessori elementary philosophy reflects current motivation theories. Montessori Life, 23, 22-33.

National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students’ motivation to learn. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Pintrich, P. R. (2003). A motivational science perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and teaching contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 667-686.

Princeton University (2010). Motivation definition. WordNet. Princeton University. Retrieved from

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Usher, A., & Kober, N. (2012). Background paper 1- What is motivation and why does it matter? (pp. 3-5). PDF download retrieved from

Zimbardo, P. G. (2012). The power of norms and groups on individuals: parallels between the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram’s obedience research. Retrieved from



booksT/TAC Library