How to Increase Students’ Motivation

This post is on the secret sauce of student learning-- motivation-- and what the research says on how to increase students’ motivation. The bottom line on motivation is that students don’t, for the most part, roll out of bed and think “Gee whiz, I really want to learn fractions today!” And if students aren’t motivated, if they just don’t care about what you are teaching, they have all sorts of fun ways to check out or subvert it (Levin, 2000). I mean, they are almost as bad as teachers at a PD they wish they could have skipped… So how do you get there?

Research to Practice: Increasing Students' Motivation

The Expectancy Value Approach

Because motivation is a big concept, researchers have looked at it in a few different ways. Eccles and Wigfield (1995; 2002) are the two big people behind the theories on motivation. Their work has mostly centered on figuring out what predicts students’ motivation. In their “expectancy-value model of motivation” they argue that whether a student is motivated for a task depends mostly on how successful students think they will be and how fun, useful, anxiety provoking, or important to their self-concept they think the activity is. To test this, researchers have tested what happens when you ask students to write down how relevant the activity is to their lives as opposed to just writing a summary of what they learned.


They found that students who wrote why the task was relevant for them rated the task as more interesting and described themselves are more likely to use the content they had learned in the future than their peers who had just written summaries of the content (Hulleman et al., 2010). Researchers have found this holds with math strategies, psychology content, and in science classes, and that it holds both in the lab and, less strongly,  in real classrooms (Hulleman et al., 2009; 2010). They even found that students who wrote down why the content was relevant expressed more of a desire to pursue science related careers or major in psychology. The effects are stronger for students who thought they weren’t going to do as well in the content– the students who knew they were going to crush it didn’t really have their interest level changed by writing about why the stuff was applicable to their own lives, but their less confident or lower achieving peers did. 

The takeaway from the expectancy value work is that you can build students’ motivation by: 1) getting them to think about how the content is relevant or useful for them; 2) making it low anxiety/ not super worrisome for them; 3) making it seem fun; 4) explaining its value… or by helping them see how they can be successful on it. You don’t need to do all of them every time– but if you want your students to be more engaged that the teacher at the bad PD, you probably want to be drawing on at least one!

Looking at Motivating Teachers

In a really different approach to motivation, three researchers in 2011 went and got students to nominate teachers who were crushing it (Anderman et al., 2011). Then they observed the teachers and looked for patterns across the four teachers in what they were doing. Their findings are bigger than what we normally think of as motivation as they hit on literally everything that these teachers had in common and that seemed helpful for students. At the same time, the researchers conclusion is that it was this constellation of behaviors that had their high school social studies and science students so excited about their classes and content. TBH, this list is a bit daunting and you might not hit all of them every day in every lesson– but the researchers feel that if you try to hit them, you too might become a teacher that gets nominated for awesomeness by your students!

  • First, they found that the teachers supported students’ understanding. They challenged the students and pushed the students to be thoughtful, engaging in what is called “academic press.” Like, when the students gave answers, the teachers followed up and asked them to explain and justify. They also scaffolded the learning– bringing in examples, manipulatives, and whatever else was needed to help students get to the big ideas. The teachers also focused on what was more important, the core concepts, within lessons, going over them again and again and trying to anticipate and head off common mistakes. They weren’t concerned with the fluff– they knew what mattered the most in their lessons and went for it.
  • Second, they made it fun and relevant. The teachers were excited about what they were teaching and communicated it to the students, using their own enthusiasm to hook students. They talked about how the content was relevant to students’ own lives or the teacher’s life and brought in examples from pop culture to make the content concrete and heighten its relevance for students. 
  • Third, the teachers built and maintained rapport with their students. They encouraged them to seek help and, when the students asked for help they…. Wait for it… helped. Yep, they went over and answered questions and gave help quickly and “productively” (whatever that means!). They also showed interest in the students as individuals.  One of the teachers started class with “News of Interest” (p.989) when students were able to share news in their own lives from school play dates to a lost cell phone. The teachers also brought in humor. Like, when a student asked about the noise next door, one of the teachers answered, “maybe aliens coming to suck our brains and lead their nation forward” (p.989). They were serious about the content, but could be playful in their interactions with students. 
  • Fourth, they managed the classroom effectively and in a way that built rapport with students. They didn’t micromanage students, giving them some choice and power within the classroom, like the ability to pick their own group to work with or to go to the bathroom without raising their hand. They also knew the students and managed some students’ behaviors differently, differentiating their behavior management to meet where the student was at. These were also teachers with eyes on the back of their heads. One of the teachers, mid-lecture, notices that a student has put something on another student’s head and walks over, removes it, and does the whole stern teacher face at the offender– without ever stopping the content instruction. Their withitness was built by their active monitoring of students– these were not teachers who hid behind their desks! They monitored students actively and walked around the classroom, staying close to the center of the action. 

The researchers conclude that by doing all of these things, they were engaging students cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally– and they were being the teachers that their students thought rocked. 


  • Anderman, L, Andrezejewski, C., & Allen, J. (2011). How do teachers support students’ motivation and learning in their classrooms? Teachers College Record, 113(5), 969-1003.
  • Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (1995). In the mind of the actor: The structure of adolescents’ achievement task values and expectancy-related beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 215–225.
  • Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 109–132. 
  • Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326, 1410–1412.
  • Hulleman, C. S., Godes, O., Hendricks, B. L., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2010). Enhancing interest and performance with a utility value intervention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 880–895. 
  • Levin, B. (2000). Putting students at the centre in education reform. J Educ Change 1, 155–172.