When do students feel most motivated? What causes a student to pass up an opportunity to go out for ice cream with friends in favor of tackling an academic challenge? Why are some students more motivated than others to engage in school? These are questions many parents and teachers wrestle with, particularly when they see a child’s motivation to achieve in school declining over the school years.

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This decline often becomes apparent during the transition from primary to middle school, usually around age 11. This is when school starts to become more focused on performance, putting more pressure on students, and this new environment is not always able to meet a student’s needs. The transition to middle school may also affect social relationships: Friendships are disrupted, parental influence decreases, and classes are bigger, which can have an adverse effect on the teacher-student relationship. At the same time, students are becoming more interested in social relationships.

“We wanted to identify the factors that are most closely related to academic motivation.”

Recognizing that motivation often declines during this period, we wanted to identify the factors that are most closely related to academic motivation, so that we can help teachers and caregivers motivate students to live up to their full potential.

Over the past four decades, many studies have examined student motivation, both in and out of the classroom, using self-report measures. In a systematic review of this evidence, we found that researchers had already summarized data from over 5,000 studies, drawn from more than 25 million students between the ages of 4 and 20. Given the sheer number of such summaries (we found 125!), it can be difficult to work through them and find answers to specific questions. Our first step, therefore, was to create a comprehensive map of all this knowledge. In this process, we found three factors that seem to be most important for academic motivation: learning opportunities, self-beliefs, and positive relationships.

Three motivating factors

Good learning opportunities, such as high-quality instruction in science or reading, boost motivation. The more students learn, the more motivated they are to continue learning. Motivation, in turn, leads to more learning, creating a feedback loop between learning and motivation.

High-quality instruction requires effective classroom management, including efficient use of lesson time and clarification of classroom rules. It also involves providing challenging tasks that encourage students to play an active role in their own learning, while at the same time supporting students as they seek to complete these tasks. Learning opportunities should be in keeping with students’ abilities.

Happy schools with positive relationships make for motivated learners.”

Students who feel more competent in their academic skills appear to be more motivated. Indeed, students’ perceptions of their own learning – their self-beliefs – may be just as important as the quality of the learning opportunities they enjoy. Teachers can help students feel competent and boost their motivation by providing feedback, highlighting the ways each individual can make progress – which once again increases learning. Teachers can create motivating goals for their students, emphasizing the importance of continuing to learn and develop their own skills rather than competing with classmates.

The student-teacher relationship also has a significant impact on motivation: Happy schools with positive relationships make for motivated learners. In adolescence, building social relationships outside of the family (especially with peers) becomes increasingly important. Supportive learning environments – ones that meet students’ emotional needs and provide a sense of belonging and connection to classmates and teachers – have a positive impact on motivation.

“Our findings highlight the importance of fostering academic skills, positive self-beliefs, and relationships in parallel.”

More research is still needed to determine whether some aspects of motivation matter more in certain contexts than in others. In our review, we were unable to take into account the interplay of various aspects of classroom learning that are important when looking at individual classrooms, teachers, and students. For example, we don’t know whether teaching methods may work differently for students from different backgrounds, and we know little about the relationship between the use of technology in the classroom and academic motivation.

However, our findings highlight the importance of fostering academic skills, positive self-beliefs, and relationships in parallel. If students see that they are making progress, feel welcome in their schools and classrooms, and are connected to their teachers and peers, they might just be motivated enough to forgo the ice cream with friends in favor of tackling an academic challenge.

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