Portrait of a Learner 4-8

Systems Change


Factor Connections

Hover to see how factors connect to Motivation. Then click connected factors to explore strategies related to multiple factors.

Motivation is the desire and energy that guides thinking and behavior. When students are motivated, they become more engaged in their learning, increasing their problem-solving, and reasoning. Students need to be challenged just enough to be engaged and motivated: they will often lose Motivation when a task is too easy, but also when it is so difficult that they feel it cannot be completed. Later in childhood, Motivation becomes increasingly multidimensional, breaking into many aspects including social and academic goals, expectations of success, and mastery, a desire to learn skills for the sake of competence.

Main Ideas

Motivation is a complex concept that varies by person and context. One important distinction is between intrinsic Motivation, the desire to learn and accomplish goals because they are inherently satisfying and personally rewarding, and extrinsic Motivation, the desire to learn and accomplish goals because of external rewards/recognition or to avoid a negative consequence. External rewards can actually reduce a students' intrinsic Motivation to learn in some cases, for instance when the external reward is more salient than the internal reason for engaging. However, some forms of rewards can also be motivating. For instance, praising the process of the task, such as students' effort and strategies (called “process praise”) can increase intrinsic Motivation, potentially by fostering a resilient Learner Mindset, focusing students on specific aspects of the work that they can control and improve. It is common for students to be driven by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. For example, a student may not be intrinsically interested in a specific assignment but may also be motivated to do well for a related long-term goal, like getting good grades. Another way to understand Motivation is to think of it as a product of a learner's expectations for success and their value of the task.

Research has demonstrated extrinsic Motivation can reduce some of the symptoms of ADHD, including aspects of Attention and Short-term Memory. In addition, students with ADHD and learning disabilities may need additional support to maintain Motivation in different contexts, which can in turn support their executive functioning.

Some important concepts that affect Motivation include:

  • Self-efficacy: an individual's beliefs in their ability to succeed in completing a task and predicts their academic behavior and well-being. Self-efficacy can vary depending on context, (e.g., self-efficacy for math vs. sports), and develops through experiences. Students with high self-efficacy believe they have the skills to successfully complete a task or achieve a goal and are therefore more likely to persevere during challenging tasks, an important aspect of a growth mindset. Self-efficacy can grow through mastery experiences or successfully completing a difficult task, observing others successfully complete a task, and receiving positive feedback. Setting short-term goals that are easily digestible can support children's self-efficacy, and provide a sense of mastery.
  • Interest: a defining characteristic of Motivation in early and middle childhood as it is the guiding principle behind children's choice, effort, and performance on task or activity. There are two different types of interest that influence Motivation: individual interest, a dispositional tendency toward an activity or topic (e.g., animals) that develops over time, and situational interest which is based on the immediate situation or context (e.g., relevance of activity to one's own Identity). Students who have ADHD may show intense interest and Motivation for tasks that are preferred and those that are non-preferred–a contradiction that can be puzzling. This increased interest is due to a neural response that sustains Motivation and Attention which is the same regardless of whether a student's brain is anticipating a positive or negative reward. In other words, if the student enjoys the activity their brain reacts the same way as if they're worried there will be a consequence for not completing it. Educators can encourage interest by providing learners with opportunities to explore their own interests and Curiosity, and using novelty when introducing concepts.
  • Belonging: the extent to which students feel personally valued, included, and supported by others in their learning environment and is a huge contributor to academic Motivation. Feelings of belonging or closeness support autonomy, self-regulated learning, and can enhance achievement Motivation. Students who have heard negative messages or experienced repeated failure, including those with ADHD or learning disabilities may seem unmotivated to engage in the classroom community because they're unwilling to try–and potentially fail– again. Agency: when students have choice in what and how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning, which gives them greater autonomy in their learning, a key contributor to engagement, accountability, and Motivation.

The celebration and acknowledgement of culture and Identity can also play an important role in the processes of academic Motivation. Educators should be aware of the importance of providing environments that are responsive, connect learning to backgrounds and interests, and work towards creating an atmosphere of trust, to support students in fully engaging and having agency in their learning.

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