Posted by: Lena B. | January 14, 2011

Motivation in school context

By Ines Lopez Pradas, Mareike Langhoff & Dmitry Trishin

As in any other introduction we would like to start with some points why learning motivation and how to motivate is important at all? According to Cheryl Spaulding the motivation is the key to student learning. Without motivating the kids, teacher cannot really teach them. It plays crucial role in the development of a human cognition. It influences our behavior and actually our behavior is built on motivation.  Knowing how motivation works, and how to motivate, would really help us to make our educational system efficient. Especially in the modern context, when individual approach is being introduced to the education, it requires us to know how to motivate every single student.  Motivation activates our resources, and the better motivation is, the better we can memorize things, the better achievement we get, the more effort we put in our activity.

Definition of motivation

There are different definitions of motivation, since it is a hard abstract notion.  According to business dictionary motivation is the Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested in and committed to a job, role, or subject, and to exert persistent effort in attaining a goal. Motivation is the energizer of behavior and mother of all action. It results from the interactions among conscious and unconscious factors such as the intensity of desire or need, incentive or reward value of the goal, and expectations of the individual and of his or her significant others. According to Biehler and Snowman, motivation is typically defined as the forces that account for the arousal, selection, direction, and continuation of behavior. Jack Landry sees motivation as the energy that gives you the strength to get up and keep going, even when things are not going how you expected. We like the first definition the most, because it reflects the basic concepts of motivation, such as giving energy to do some task, it affects our behavior, makes us interested to being committed to some role, job or subject. But the most important point this definition provides, is that motivation is the factor in the first place, either external, internal, or both.

General types of motivation

Theorists and researchers of human motivation point out these two generic types of motivation as extrinsic and intrinsic (Deci and Ryan). “Extrinsic motivation exists when individuals are motivated by an outcome that is external or functionally unrelated to the activity in which they are engaged” (Spaulding “Motivation in the classroom). “When individuals are extrinsically motivated they hold some desired outcome as a goal (e.g. getting a good grade, avoiding punishment) they recognize that a certain way of behaving is expedient means to that goal, and they make plans to modify their behavior in such a manner that they are likely to experience the desired outcome” (Lepper and Hoddell, 1989). “In contrast to extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation exists when someone works because of an inner desire to accomplish a task successfully, whether it has some external value or not” (Spaulding). “Intrinsic motivation appears to be a by-product of two self perceptions. People tend to be intrinsically motivated in situations in which they fell both competent and self determining (Deci and Ryan). The simplest example of such motivation would be curiosity, like a child learns about “why the water is wet” because of pure interest. An example of a kid drawing a picture to show it to the adults and get some approval is a little bit more complicated. There are both components of motivation; the intrinsic is in kid’s desire to feel competent in drawing, to draw well. The extrinsic is in need of adults and peers approval, and maybe reward.

Ken Shah & prof. Param J Shah offered another typology of motivation. They differentiate such motivations as achievement, affiliation, power, competence, attitude, incentive and fear motivation. But we are going to concentrate of the typology of Deci and Ryan, since it is basic for understanding of motivation.

The extrinsic motivation

The motivation normally depends on individual differences of each person, of each child. What is it that motivates us to learn? One kind of motivation, which nowadays is very useful in our school, is the extrinsic motivation by which we mean, according to Paul R. Burden (2000), is the motivation from outside the learner and has to do with external rewards for completing a task. But if we take this into account, we have to know that “the reinforcement practices of extrinsic motivation can be effective, but the excessive use of rewards may be decreasingly successful in new situations, may foster dependence on the teacher, and may undermine intrinsic motivation.”(Paul R. Burden, 2000, pg 3). Therefore, it is good to use extrinsic motivation taking into account the rewards, when this is really necessary, for example, when the students find themselves less intrinsically interested and satisfied.

Once known, we must understand the relationship formed between extrinsic motivation and behavior of individuals, i.e., how people act in certain situation. Several investigations have shown what was the change in the behavior of people, and in our case, student behavior, when they got a reward for doing well in a given task. When receiving a reward for carrying out an activity, the children’s cognitive state changes, the child begins to associate the task with the final reward, which explains, therefore, that in many cases the child loses track of importance of the development of the task, do not usually think of the task itself, but only of  the reward, for example:

[Children in a class of first grade, are preparing to take a reading class. The teacher explains the activity to develop speed reading, but find that their students are not motivated by the activity, their reading speed has dropped, so he decides to reward the child who read more words in two minutes. Children, therefore, started to practice, and when their turn comes, they tried to make the best possible way. After they finished reading, the teacher asked about the understanding of the text and she realized that children had made a good read, but they could not understand what they had read.]

This example shows us the change in the behavior of children when a reward is given, and also the results obtained, in which one of the objectives achieved, but the most important are left forgotten. The extrinsic motivation produces a wide variety of behaviors, which became a mean to reach their goal. Therefore, within this kind of motivation, we find, according to Deci and Ryan (1991), four subtypes of extrinsic motivation:

  • External regulation: When the behavior is performed to satisfy an external demand or reward. The behavior is influenced by rewards or punishments, for example: I should pass my exams so that my parents would let me spend more time with my friend during the summer. This is regulated by: compliance, external rewards and punishments.
  • Introjected regulation: When the individual understands the reasons for carrying out these actions, but yet is influenced by rewards or punishments, for example: when a student tries to pass a test, because the previous test was not passed. This is regulated by: self-control, ego-involvement, internal rewards and punishment.
  • Identified regulation: When the individuals are able to control his behavior, once understood the reason for their actions, for example: when an individual decides to study for the importance that the knowledge have in his life. This is regulated by: personal importance and conscious valuing.
  • Integrated regulation: When they treat and evaluate the objectives of the action. The individual is fully conscious, and regulates his or her behavior, although it is considered extrinsic, because their behavior is carried out to achieve results. The integrated regulation is closely related to intrinsic motivation. This is regulated by: congruence, awareness and synthesis with self.

Knowing all of this, we can understand the means by which the behavior is influenced by the extrinsic motivation, how this adjusts our conducts.

Intrinsic Motivation in the classroom

The main object in this paragraph is to point out what are conditions responsible to improve or maximize intrinsic motivation in the classroom. As mentioned before numerous theories of human motivation have revealed that students´ perceptions of competence and control influence their motivated behaviour and task-related management in an impressive way. Thus teachers, who want to enhance their students´ intrinsic motivation in the classroom, must consider two things: they must create academic environments that provide their students with control opportunities and they must make certain that their students are competent of performing successfully in those environments. (Spaulding 1992 PG 11) This competence motive can be activated in any situation that provides opportunities for developing new competences, a variety of tasks, materials, activities and a suitable learning environment are some aspects which can be used to maximize the intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Even though students usually do not attempt school tasks unless there is some extrinsic reason for attempting them, if certain conditions are met, they may become intrinsically motivated to continue working on it. (Stipek 1988 PG 50)

The purpose of the following part is to identify and illustrate some instructional principles that can guide teachers` effort to encourage their students` intrinsic motivation in the classroom. To start with the first principle, this involves a predictable classroom environment. The principle shows one way to enhance students` self-perceptions of competence and control. Teachers can help students to feel better in school by creating predictable environments in their classrooms. Students most often prefer to know what the upcoming plans for their classes are so that they can deal effectively with the academic challenge. (Spaulding 1992 PG 48) To put this principal into practice teachers could for instance organize their classes in such a way that days of a week become associated with certain recurring activities or they could begin and end each class period with predictable routines. (Spaulding 1992 PG 29) Nevertheless it is important to mention that these kinds of activities do not imply that teachers do not have a responsibility to bring novel and interesting ideas into their lessons. (Spaulding 1992 PG 31) At the contrary to provide students with interesting lessons and activities is another important principle of intrinsic motivation. It suggests that teachers should make their lessons novel or unusual with discrepant or unexpected outcomes. If they do so students will probably be more interested in the content of their lessons. (Spaulding 1992 PG 49)

Another principle to maximize intrinsic motivation in the classroom is to find a balance between easy and moderately challenging tasks. Students must have the opportunities to demonstrate their existing competences by managing easier tasks and according to this develop new competences by successfully completing moderately challenging tasks. (Spaulding 1992 PG  49) Tasks that are too difficult are not intrinsically motivating for students. In that case they do not experience any development of competence, and therefore will not be motivated to continue to engage the task. (Stipek 1988 PG 54) According to Stipek each child must be given tasks that are hard enough to require some effort and to result in increased competency, but easy enough to be completed with no more than a modest amount of assistance. (Stipek 1988 PG 63)

Another variable that encourage intrinsic motivation is individual choice. Several recent studies have shown that interest in school-related activities is enhanced by less teacher control and more student choice in tasks. There are many ways to provide some student choice without creating chaos in a classroom. One approach could be to give students some directions in when they complete particular tasks so they can order tasks according to their personal preferences. Another choice can also be given in the difficulty level of assignment or tasks they work on. (Stipek 1988 PG 69)

Altogether many possibilities exist to improve intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Students are intrinsically motivated to manage tasks that are moderately challenging, novel and relevant to their own lives. Tasks which are too hard or too easy, repetitive, or perceived to be irrelevant do not encourage intrinsic motivation. Students will also feel more competent and proud, and thus more intrinsically motivated in tasks, when they can take responsibility for their success. (Stipek PG 73) However it is not always easy to put all these principles into practice, especially in classes with many students it could be a problem to respect individual needs.

The role of teacher-student relationship in the development of motivation

Some people consider the personality of teacher to be the most motivating factor in learning, “The relationship between a student and a teacher can create a barrier to learning, but it can also encourage the student to reach their full potential.” (Shirley, 2009), in this part we will find out how to create motivating relationships with your students, being their teacher. This type of relationship is characterized by mutual affection, respect, trust, support, positiveness, friendliness. (Spaulding 1992 PG 64-80). According to Spaulding there are a few things teacher should do to create relationships that increases student academic motivation drastically. Here we want to recite them with summaries of Spaulding`s and our thoughts.

First of them is “avoiding severe and excessive use of punishment”. Spaulding offered not to use any punishments that somehow create pain, suffering or humiliation. Either if this punishment is established by the teacher, or parents and authorities, with the help of teacher. Instead of this, she offers to use “subtle time-out procedures”. Somehow isolating the child from the environment that supports misbehaviour for a few minutes, as privately as possible – does not offend child that much, yet it helps by preventing the misbehaviour.

Another thing you should keep in mind is “avoiding humour targeted at students” and “avoiding differential treatment based on unjustified prejudices”. Some pupils do not understand the humour of adults, it may embarrass them. “The student should never be made the object of a joke” (Spaulding 1992 PG 64-80). All the students should be treated in the same manner, no matter the sex, religion or the colour of the skin. Even if it is impossible to communicate to some misbehaving kids – the attempts should be still made.

Showing interest and concern for students is important too. All the students should be treated as humans, not as some jar that needs to get filled with knowledge. If you are interested in students as in subjects of your job, some people you meet on your workplace, you are never making real relationships with them. To create successful relations with them, your interest should be sincere, and should be obviously manifested in your actions. Two other things that creates motivating relationships is being calm, consistent and forgiving, as well as having high but attainable expectations for student success. The last one is connected to the “flow” notion.

Yet there some things you should not overdo, or dependency (when students are depended on teacher’s approval) may be created. To avoid it, you should not focus on the social part of teaching, but academic. Even misbehaving students should be treated in the same manner as others, yet you should show that you are not amused by the things they do sometimes. Excessive use of praise leads to the dependency too. And the most important thing to do is to redirect students feeling of cause of their success and failures not to luck or teacher’s traits, but their own attributes. Showing the students the real cause of their success motivates a lot. If you manage to create such relationships, as described in that advice, you are surely to get a highly motivated and interested in learning process group of pupils.


Motivation is the key to student learning. It consists of different factors that are keeping us interested in some specific subject, job, role and goal achieving. Those factors could be either extrinsic or intrinsic, and sometimes both. The peculiarity of extrinsic motivation is  external reward for matching the expectations. The good side of extrinsic motivation is that it proves to be effective when the pupils are not intrinsically motivated, but the excessive use of reward can also undermine the intrinsic motivation and make the students dependent on teacher’s approval. The intrinsic motivation is the best side of motivation, but it is very hard to control and improve it. It is easier to establish intrinsic motivation in classes with less students, where you can perform individual approach. The role of teacher-student relationships is fundamental in the development of intrinsic motivation, and controlling the side effects of extrinsic. By creating trusting, supporting relationship the pupils tend to copy the patterns of the respected teacher, which instantly motivates them to learn the selected subject.

Our advice would be not to use too much of the extrinsic motivation, but to try to develop trusting, mutually affected, respectful relationship with your pupils, which is surely to lead to motivation that is coming from pupil’s hearts.


Cheryl L. Spaulding, 1992, “Motivation in the classroom”. McGraw-Hill inc.

Deborah J. Stipek, 1988, “Motivation to learn, from theory to practice”. A division of Simon & Schuster inc.

Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan, 2002, “Handbook of self-determination research”. By the university of Rotchester press.

Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan, 1985, “Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour”. Plenum press, New York.

Paul R. Burden, 2000, “Powerful classroom management strategies: Motivating students to learn”. Corwin press inc.

Paul R. Pintrich, Martin L. Maehr, 2004, “Advances in motivation and achievemnt, volume 13. Motivating students, improving schools, the legacy of Carol Midgley”. Elsevier jai.



  1. I agree that the motivation is the energizer of behavior and mother of all action, without it we cannot learn anything.

    I think that intrinsic motivation comes first and then you can help it with extrinsic one. As teacher we can try to keep up the motivation of the students if the challenges we propose them and their skills are in balance. The thing is that everybody want to achieve their goals but if they are too demanding for them, the motivation goes down.

  2. I really like your article, because you managed it to explain the difficult theory with practical examples.
    I am of the same opinion like Maria Merino. I also think that the intrinsic motivation appears first. Especially small children are very interested in many topics and they want to know more about it.
    But unfortunately the intrinsic motivation is more and more lost with increasing age. The challenge for us teacher is now: We have to manage it, that the children receive their intrinsic motivation.

  3. First of all, I want to thank you for your article. It was really amazing to read this article, because the topic “motivation” concerns each of us, espescially, the teachers.

    I think, intrinsic motivation is a important point because, it should always be the case, that the children are motivated by themselves and that they want to learn something – but that’s not that easy. The teachers should be able to make the content of the lesson so interessting, so that the students want to learn something, because they WANT to know it and not because they MUST learn it.

  4. I really enjoyed reading it because motivation is essential in learning processes. A future teacher it is very important to consider it in everything it is hapening in our classes.
    Motivation plays an important role inside the class, children need to be motivated to learn, if they enjoy what we are doing in class they will learn more and faster.
    Motivation is the key to student learning, it is one of the most important factors that are keeping us interested in some subject, job, role, goal, etc. It is crucial in setting and attaining goals. I really agree with that motivation is the difference between waking up before dawn to pound the pavement and lazing around the house all day. It was really amazing to read about this topic.

  5. I agree with the others that the article is really interesting and it is amazing to read.

    Motivation allows you to have the skill to get yourself to take action, if you are not motivate it is easier to fail to achieve your goals. The role of motivation in our life is very important, we need it to make the most of every day, to feel proud of ourselves, etc.

    I really agree with Alba when she says that motivation is the key to student learning. I want to be a teacher in the futur, therefore it is very important to considerate motivation as one of the most important things in education.

  6. As they well said with the information above motivation is one, if not the most, important factor of human beings to achieve any goal proposed. But, when we talk about motivation, one of the principal aspects to take into account is that motivation depends a lot of individual interest of each person so, facing a same task presented to two persons, the motivation and the will to achieve the goal will depend on the grade of interest they show for getting the aim.

    This way, intrinsic motivation will vary and lead the success or the failure of task and activities we do through our lives. What is true is that our interest and our motivation for determinate things change as we grow or we change our behavior or mind, so if for example we talk about pupils in school, we have to propose them a sort of task according to their age and possibilities in each stage of their schooling.

    The difficulty of the task will also condition motivation for achieving our goals. If a task is presented with high levels of difficulty we will get bored or uninterested in it, so we will lose our motivation and will drop it away.
    The other way around if the task is too easy that we do not apply certain level of ability or effort, our motivation will be getting down soon and we will lose interest and probably finally we drop it away as well.

    So if I talk about teachers, they should adequate the level of tasks, objectives and contents taking into account how children can be more or less interested and so, they will get easier to achieve what is proposed to get. Extrinsic motivation is good when intrinsic fails. If in a task children lose motivation, teachers can offer any kind of reward or prize to rise the level of motivation in children again, but do not become it an habit, but use it by leading to intrinsic motivation through extrinsic. At this point we do not have only to reward our students, but also avoid any type of distinction or punishment, because it will turn students even more reluctant to achieve the goal, so it will be more difficult to remain their motivation.

    We, as teacher, have to take into account each of our students and try to know what ways we can lead their learning for making it interesting, enriching and motivating.

  7. I really like this article because it has been easy to understand and the examples make the reading easier. As most people think it is true that motivation is one of the most important factors. Without motivation we can not make our best that’s why, we as teacher have to find the way to make our students to be motivated, even if it is a very difficult and complex goal. We have to create a relation with our students characterized by mutual affection, respect, trust, support, positiveness, friendliness… and not create a barrier to learning.

  8. It was really interesting to read this article, because so many research has been done about motivation but I always learn new things every time I read new articles. Motivation is the Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested in and committed to a job, role, or subject, and to exert persistent effort in attaining a goal. Motivation is the crucial element in setting and attaining goals and research shows you can influence your own levels of motivation and self-control.

  9. I really enjoy reading this article because I find particularly interesting the topic. I have read a lot about motivation, but even so I always learn new things.

    Motivation is really important when doing a task or a job. And it is even more important when working with children. Without motivating the kids, teacher cannot really teach them. It plays crucial role in the development of a human cognition. It influences our behaviour and actually our behaviour is built on motivation. Knowing how motivation works, and how to motivate, would really help us to make our educational system efficient. But it is true that there is no a key for motivating all the people. That’s why we can say that motivation is a kind of mystery, because there is not a way to motivate all the human beings. Because it’s individual is different.

  10. After read this article and compare it with my own experience, I can say that motivation is an essential term in our classes, either intrinsic or extrinsic. Motivation is what make us be interested in knowledge and have a reason to acquire it. For all humans is required feel a motivation for something and try to improve his/her skills in that field.

    When I look back on my academic years, I realize that the teachers who made the lessons more actives, gave us real examples, teached us how to apply the knowledge outside the classroom and tried to surprise us making the lesson different each day, are who have teached me more.
    Motivation can appears in several forms and as has been said above, for each person is different.
    Our role as teachers is discover which is the motivation for each pupil and learn to use it in the lessons to make children learn more as they are owners of their knowledge.

  11. […] Motivation – National Association of School PsychologistsMotivating Learning in Young ChildrenMotivation in school context « Studying Workplace LearningHow Motivation Affects Learning and Behavior | […]

  12. I found your article about motivation in school context very interesting. It reminded me how important it recalls some of the key people during my own school days were. Without motivation in school one of the most important parts of life would not have been so successful. Without motivation we can not make our best that’s why, we as teacher have to find the way to make our students to be motivated, even if it is a very difficult and complex goal.

  13. Good article, i Am trying to do the same in my country (Mali) by organizing conferences about how we can motivate our kids to learn better.

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