What Factors Motivate Students to learn?

Principle: Students’ motivation generates, direct, and sustains what they do to learn.

I think of this principle as a sort of “principle of principles”. Motivation can move mountains, it is the driving force of the human kind and - as teachers, parents, citizens, friends, etc - we see it at work at every turn.

Reading this chapter has made me deeply think about motivation and the relationship between teacher and student’s motivation. I was aware of the importance of motivation, but I didn’t have a very structured picture in mind. In particular, I’ve learnt that it is crucial to 1) understand what factors motivate students to learn 2) be aware that what motivates them can be (and usually will be) different from what motivates us 3) help students value what we - as teachers - know/believe is relevant for their cultural growth.

In certain contexts, however, the biggest problem is the lack of sufficient motivation (or so much hidden or targeted at so unintelligible goals, that we have to deal with it as it was absent).

This may be rare in college classrooms and even rarer in short training courses but may be relatively frequent in teenager classrooms.

In all my life (as a teacher) I’ve been teaching to adults, i.e. to people on average with strong motivation and conscious needs for acquiring certain skills. In these cases too it may be difficult to leverage students’ motivation so that they truly learn what we can teach them. In this regard, I found illuminating the difference the authors make between “performance goals” and “learning goals”. However, no matter how much difficult it may be, still these students come into courses with the need to learn. As for short training courses, in particular, participants often take a week off from their work and have to travel and invest time, energy and money to attend a course. These students really need the skills they come to learn and, in general, do manage to get the most from the course and the instructor(s).

The story is completely different with teenagers who don’t see why they should make the effort to learn new things. They are unable to see the big picture of their lives and understand why knowing things and having skills is substantial for the quality of their future life and their future in general.

In this regard, I confess I’ve read this chapter with my younger son (15 yrs old) in mind who - in contrast to the elder one (18) - is completely uninterested in gaining new competences and in learning.


Here are some concepts from the book I absolutely want to remember (and revisit from time to time):

  • Students’ goals for themselves may differ from our goals for them;
  • A mismatch often occurs when we want our students to pursue learning for its own sake but they are motivated primarily by performance goals;
  • Performance goals are related to the aim of appearing intelligent, gaining status, aquiring recognition and praise.
  • Two forms of performance goals: preformance-approach goals (attaining competence) and performance-avoidant goals (avoiding incompetence).
  • When guided by learning goals, in contrast to performance goals, students try to gain competence and truly learn what an activity or task can teach them.
  • Students who hold learning goals are more likely to:
    • use study strategies that result in deeper understanding;
    • seek help when needed;
    • persist when faced with difficulty;
    • seek out and feel comfortable with challenging tasks.
  • Students may also have work-avoidant goals, involving the desire to finish work as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible. These students may show little interest in learning and appear alienated, discouraged, or disengaged.

Now, I find really difficult to understand what makes a student more driven by learning goals than by performance or work-avoidant goals. Clearly the ideal learner will hold learning goals, but my impression is that the vast majority of high school and college students tend to hold performance goals (if not work-avoidant goals). Is it possible that the form (work-avoidance, performance, learning) of goals may change as a person gets more mature? Or does it depend on specific contexts? In this regard, the book’s authors claim that work-avoidance goals are often context-specific. Still, I wonder whether motivation may also depend on student’s nature, and/or on models inherited from the family, and/or on previous educational experiences, and/or on the cultural/historycal period, etc. If so, do we - as teachers - have any chance to influence the type of goals students will hold in our courses?

In the book, it is said: “In fact, when some of their (= students’) goals align with ours (= teachers’), powerful learning situations tend to result.” But what if they don’t align? As a teacher, my goals would never align for example to work-avoidant goals. What can be done in such cases? Insist or give up?

For sure, the teaching context can make a huge difference in what we can do to 1) identify the nature of the goals of our students and 2) find the best way to leverage them. Having many hours each week in a small classroom for a prolonged period of time is the ideal situation. In any case, interacting a lot with our students is key. When there are many students and little time, our capacity to interact with them and work on goals becomes more problematic (having to deal with many students and little time affects all the aspects of teaching, of course)

Given that “students who hold multiple types of goals are more successful than those with just one type of goal”, perhaps we may try to propose/instill extra (learning) goals to students holding performance or work-avoidant goals. I’m afraid this might be for super-heros :-)

I will come back to this in the case study I will present at the end of this blog.

Value “[…] a student will be more motivated to pursue the goal that has the highest value to him”

Wigfield and Eccels (1992, 2000) suggest three broad determinants of subjective value for goals:

attainment value - represents the satisfaction that one gains from mastery and accomplishement of a goal or task.

intrinsic value (it is the source of intrinsic motivation) - represents the satisfaction that one gains simply from doing the task rather than from a particular outcome of the task.

instrumental value - represents the degree to which an activity or a goal helps one accomplish other important goals (such as gaining extrinsic rewards)

By experiencing how much difficult it is to identify the values and goals of my son (see below), I’m tempted to deduce that it might be nearly impossible to identify those of a high number of students.

Expetancies “People are motivated to pursue goals and oucomes that they believe they can successfully achieve. Conversely, if they do not expect to successfully achieve a desired goal or outcome, they will not be motivated to engage in the behaviours necessary to achieve it”.

This is something that it is easier detect in a classroom. By interacting with students, I can see when they are about to give up because the task at hand is too difficult for them and they don’t feel motivated to engage in the behaviours necessary to achieve it. In this cases, I both encourage students by telling them that the task is indeed difficult and that it is normal to feel discouraged at the very beginning and - if needed - by assigning simpler tasks before they face more difficult ones. Usually it works. Another approach that works consists in being honest about my own difficulties as a learner. I tell students that if I had to learn how to design and carry out a wet lab protocol (which has many things in common with designing and writing scripts), I would feel completely lost at the beginning and I would need a lot of help to understand even the tiniest details such as those that are automatic or trivial to a wet biologist. I never ever tell students something is easy to learn. I may tell them that a given topic is easier than another in my opinion (to not scare them), but I never say that learning something new is an easy task. Rather the contrary: I tend to say that things are difficult to learn. This usually reinfornce self-confidence when they realise that, despite this, they understand and develop competence.

I also talk to them about the fact that being the teacher does not mean I know everything, and that, when I get stuck because I don’t know something, I google it, as everybody would do.

Overall, the discussion on expetancies has been very useful to me. In particular, I’m happy to be more aware about the fact that, when students attribute their success to internal or controllable causes, they will expect future success more likely than when they attribute their success to external or uncontrollable causes. This awareness gives me “tools” to work with in the classroom.

How Perceptions of the Environment Affect the Interation of Value and Expectancies

Figure 3.2 and the corresponding discussion is encouraging and discouraging at the same time. On the one hand, it is encouraging because it highlights the relevance of the supportive nature of the environment, which is something we can influence as teachers (more than value and efficacy expectancies, which may depend on many factors on which we do not have any control). On the other hand, it is discouraging because there is only one single condition ensuring motivation: when all three levers that influence motivation are aligned in a positive direction. Given the difficulty of achieving this condition in certain classrooms, this may turn out to be frustrating for a teacher.

What Strategies Does the Research Suggest?

Here are my comment on some of the strategies and a few examples on how I use them:

Strategies to Establish Value

  • Connect the material to students’ interests and Provide authentic, real-worls tasks: when I teach file parsing, I ask students to practice on the “typical” file format they encounter in their work. In the “Python libraires” session, I propose a number of different libraries and they can choose which one they want to learn and - subsequently - teach to their peers. I also try to make examples showing impressive, funny results obtained with a very few lines of code.

  • Show your own passion and enthusiasm for the discipline - This is really crucial and it is also easy when the discipline is one I like. However, in academic courses, it may happen that a teacher is requested to deliver a course the subjet of which is not in his/her research domanin and is somehow boring. It happened to me at least twice. In this cases, I rely much more in techinques such as Show relevance to students’ current acasemic lives and Demonstrate the relevance of higher-level skills to students’ future professional lives. Fortunately, it happens that I’m generally stimulated by perceiving the students understand what I’m teaching, thus, even when I find the subject quite boring (e.g., all the details of the Krebb’s cycle…), I try at least to make it very clear and take the time to ensure everybody in the classroom is following me. When the subject is not hyper exciting to me, I also try to change the structure of the lesson, by delivering it in small chunks or often interrupting the flow with questions, etc.

Strategies That Help Students Build Positive Expentancies

Here, the most relevant strategies (all connected to each other) are in my opiniono: Identigy an appropriate level of challenge; Create assignments that provide the appropriate level of challenge; Provide early success opportunities. These three strategies are related to help build or leverage students’ self-confidence. There is plenty of students with little efficacy expentancies. One of the courses I teach most is “Python for life scientists”. The average student of this course has no idea about what an operating system is; perhaps they know Windows is an OS, and they heard about Linux but are not sure if it is or not an OS; usually - when I ask them to provide a definition of Operating system - the vast majority has no idea. Tipically, they think “they are not good with numbers”, “they will never become good at programming”, etc. My goal is to bring them to the point they go home after the course and are able to indipendently write Python scripts to analyse their data. With these students it is particularly important to pitch all the aspects of the course at a level that is challenging but attainable for them. And also make them feel they can do it, by assigning simple tasks and increasing the difficulty very gradually. Nevertheless, in this same course (5 days), the most difficult day is the second one. It is difficult because it requires very little notions but a lot of thinking and reasoning “as a real programmer”. They struggle as mad. But after that, everything becomes easier. I always tell them: “today is the most difficult one; after that the road will go down”. It is risky to teach difficult things at the beginning of a course and I’ve thought a lot about this choice. I’ve also discussed it with colleagues, co-trainers, and even with students. At the end of the day, it seems that this approach pays off. At the beginning of the course we (teachers and students) are all still fresh, students don’t expect it will be easy, there is a lot of positive energy, and they experience they can do a lot of programming with very little notions. After day 2, they start consolidating because they have “just” to add a few things and do a lot of practice. The difficult part (for the teacher) is that starting difficult takes a lot of time and a lot of work needs to be carried out individually with each student. In any case it is good because it has the side effect of creating a very supportive environment and it is a good chance to show them you care about them.

Strategies That Address Value and Expectancies

Brainstorming, work in groups, asking questions are very important approaches that I try to introduce in courses as much as I can. However, I never reflected on the importance of Giving students an opportunity to reflect on assignments. In other words, I dont ask “What did you learn from the assignment?”, “What was the most valuable feature of this project?”, “What skills do you need to work on?”, etc, whereas I realise it would be very helpful to do it.

Case study: teaching maths to a special student

Given the huge gaps my son (15 yrs old) has in maths, I’m (home) working with him nearly every day since he started high school (Sept 2015). I’m aware our teacher-student dynamics are peculiar given I’m his mother and I don’t have, for him, the credibility an “actual” teacher would have. However, I’m a teacher in life, so a do my best to reason as such also in teaching maths to my son, including the fact that I constantly observe what happens in the “classroom”. Working on this chapter helped me clarify several things.

Goals: I wondered much about my son’s goals in studying maths and I can say, after careful observation, he holds work-avoidant goals. I spent a lot of time thinking about which other goals - unrelated to maths - I could leverage.

Value: I noticed a small component of attainment value, which means that, once he becomes able to easily solve excercises of a certain type (e.g. algebraic expressions with radicals), he feels motivated in making more exercises to reinforce his mastery. Naturally, this motivation is absent with new classes of exercises. Intrinsinc value is nearly absent. Since both attainment value and intrinsic value are not very relevant to my son, I had to conclude that there must be extrinsic rewards. I thought a lot about what could be an extrinsic reward that would motivate my son to make several maths exercises each week. He is too immature to think about having in the future an interesting career, a good salary, public recognition, etc. These things are too distant in time to provide instrumental value to short-term goals. He simply thinks maths is the most useless and boring thing in life. The book made me realise that my goal for him (learn to love maths as I do) was not only simply misalined with his goals, it belonged to a different galaxy! So, I’ve stopped feeling disappointed and started better looking in my son’s goals’ basket. Well, he often asks for money to go out with friends or buy clothes he likes but he always gets from us less than he would like. So, I made a deal with him, which is: 0.5 euro per exercise correctly completed, in fair copy. I only pay bunches of 20 exercises and each bunch expires on Friday, which means that if he doesn’t complete 20 exercises by Friday, he doesn’t get any money for that week. We will see whether it is going to work.

With reference to what the authors say (“a task that initially holds only instrumental value to a student can come to have intrinsic value as he develops knowledge and competence in the subject area.”), I will take this (perhaps unethical) approach as successful if - at some point - some intrinsic values do supersede the (money) instrumental value.


I found working on this chapter very interesting but also very demanding. It may have depended on the importance I give to both students’ motivation and learning how to improve my capability to motivate them.

Also, the theme of motivation stimulated a deluge of thoughts in relation to my son and, despite I’m his mother, he is giving me the opportunity to learn a lot as a teacher about how to deal with students’ motivation.