Journey to Excellence

Research summary - building self-motivation

Image of young boy playing hopscotch

What is self-motivation?

The study of motivation has given rise to many different theories about how to motivate ourselves and other people. In recent years, a growing number of schools have implemented programmes designed to increase levels of learner motivation, in particular, their capacity for self-motivation.

'Students require some form of stimulus to activate, provide direction for, and encourage persistence in their study and learning efforts. Motivation is this energy to study, to learn and achieve and to maintain these positive behaviors over time. Motivation is what stimulates students to acquire, transform and use knowledge.' James Groccia 1992

Motivation might be best described as having the desire and willingness to do something and theories of motivation have often focused on two distinct categories: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is when we attempt to satisfy a desire, expectation, or goal without being influenced to do so by another person, or by an external incentive or reward. We determine our own goals and expectations, not someone else.  Intrinsic motivation is sometimes referred to as self-motivation.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when we are compelled to do something or act a certain way because of external factors. These might include incentives and rewards or even punishments. Someone else usually determines the goals or expectations.


Education and motivation

For many generations, Scottish schooling was based on an underlying assumption that most children were naturally reluctant to learn and therefore required extrinsic forms of motivation. This led to the establishment of discipline systems based mainly on punishments and sanctions. Corporal, or physical, punishment was abolished in Scotland as recently as 1979.

Since the 1980s, greater emphasis has been placed on systems of positive discipline. Whilst this was also based on extrinsic motivation, the emphasis was mainly on rewards and positive incentives rather than on punishments and sanctions.

Although extrinsic motivation has been used in our education system for many years, there is evidence to show that far from encouraging learning, it actually undermines it. Extrinsic motivation identifies goals and offers incentives and rewards for achieving them. Since learners want to get the rewards, they are willing to engage in the learning activities. This usually means, however, that young people learn to see the knowledge the teacher wishes to convey as a way to get the reward, rather than something interesting to pursue for its own sake. They do not view it as something useful in its own right, so they do not question or evaluate what they are learning. Once the prize has been achieved, young people no longer have any motivation to retain what they have learned. Extrinsic motivation therefore, does not promote deeper or meta-level learning.


Building intrinsic motivation

In recent years schools have increasingly come to recognise that intrinsic, or self-motivation is a much more powerful driver of learning and achievement.

Intrinsic motivation assumes that we are all born with an innate capacity to learn and that learning is generally a natural and enjoyable activity. Young people are driven by intrinsic factors such as the love of learning and natural curiosity. Intrinsic motivation is powerful because children have had a genuine interest in the goal itself, as distinct from the reward. The knowledge and skills required to achieve the goal are 'intrinsically' related to the goal. In pursuing the goal, they learn in a context in which they can later use the knowledge and skills acquired. This is why, for example, people develop a deeper level of skills and knowledge in the pursuit of hobbies.

The challenge for schools, teachers, parents and young people is to tap into, nurture and build upon this intrinsic self-motivation.


Image of pupils playing on swings in the playground

Motivating environments

The nature of both the classroom and home environment has a significant impact in shaping children’s beliefs and attitudes toward learning. When teachers and parents nurture their children's natural curiosity about the world by welcoming their questions, encouraging exploration, and providing a supporting and encouraging environment, they are giving their children the message that learning is worthwhile and satisfying.

When children experience an environment that fosters self-worth and independence, they will be more willing to accept the risks inherent in learning. Conversely, children who do not consider themselves to be competent and successful learners will be less motivated to engage fully in learning challenges and their capacity to tolerate and cope with failure is significantly reduced.

Children begin to form beliefs about their school-related successes and failures at an early stage. The factors to which children attribute their successes (such as hard work, ability, or level of task difficulty) and their failures (perhaps lack of ability or lack of effort) have important implications for how they approach and cope with learning situations. 

Research also suggests that, although young children tend to maintain high expectations for success even in the face of repeated failure, older students do not. Young children have more resilience in their learning and they are not put off by failures and setbacks. As children grow older and progress through the school system, however, their natural motivation to learn is eroded to the extent that some students appear almost indifferent to learning.

Certainly, a lot of evidence suggests that we should be concerned about the motivation of young people in schools today. Michael Barber’s publication ‘The Learning Game’ (1994) was based on one of the most extensive studies into student motivation in recent years. His survey of 30,000 pupils by Keele University surveyed the attitudes of children in secondary schools in England and charted their views about school.

The survey found that most young people were positive about school and said they worked as hard as they were able to. They thought that the school they attended was a good one and they generally felt welcomed there. But when the researchers probed further, they uncovered what Barber described as the ‘disappeared’, the ‘disaffected’ and the ‘disappointed’. He concluded, 'A general lack of motivation affects perhaps 40% of all pupils in secondary schools.'

This general lack of motivation and the low-level disruption it can cause in the classroom is a persistent problem for schools. An increasing number of schools are, therefore, implementing programmes designed to increase levels of intrinsic motivation in learners. Fostering and building self-motivation is one of the key challenges for teachers and schools. 

Motivational research

A growing body of evidence suggests that intrinsically motivated learners deploy different learning strategies than those who are subject to extrinsic drivers.

Mark Lepper’s research (1988) concluded that intrinsically motivated learners tend to employ strategies that demand more effort and that enable them to process information more deeply. They also prefer tasks that are more challenging and are willing to put in greater amounts of effort to achieve learning goals. Extrinsically oriented students, by contrast, are inclined to extend the minimal amount of effort required to get the maximal reward. Research also shows that, in certain situations, extrinsic rewards have the potential for decreasing existing intrinsic motivation.

Lepper also concluded that being able to identify the relevance of learning goals also heightens motivation, as does contextualising learning, that is, helping students to see how skills can be applied to other situations outwith the classroom.

Condry and Chambers (1978) found students with intrinsic orientation used more logical information gathering and decision-making strategies than did students who were extrinsically oriented.

The researcher Cyril Houle (1966) conducted one of the most well known studies on what motivates learners and identified three distinct motivational styles:

  • Goal-oriented learners - who use learning to accomplish clear objectives such as passing exams and tests.
  • Activity-oriented learners - who use learning as a means of socialising with others and developing relationships.
  • Learning-oriented learners - who seek knowledge for its own sake and for personal growth.

Recognising the various motivational styles of learners can help teachers to identify the approaches to learning and teaching that will satisfy the needs of individuals. Self-study programmes, for example, will be unlikely to motivate ‘activity-oriented’ learners unless the programme contains some element of interaction with others.

Alistair Smith (2002) believes that motivation causes physiological changes in the brain. The internal reward system is activated so that the brain’s circuitry - the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens, the basal ganglia, the brainstem and the hippocampus - are stimulated. Research shows that with proper motivation more areas of the cortex become involved and learning is quicker.

Daniel Goleman (1995) points to the growing amount of evidence which suggests that emotional intelligence is more important than academic intelligence. Goleman believes that self-motivation lies at the heart of emotional intelligence and that emotions control the on-off switch to learning. Learners who are relaxed and calm are much better placed to absorb new knowledge and develop new skills. Creating a non-threatening classroom environment where mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn, reduces tension, opens the mind and increases the opportunity for learning. By contrast, fear, anxiety, stress and anger are emotional factors that adversely affect learning.

The Motivated School

Alan McLean (2003), a prominent Scottish psychologist, carried out extensive research into the motivation of students in Glasgow schools. This resulted in the publication of 'The Motivated School' - a body of work which has been influential at all levels in Scottish education. Mclean identified three internal drivers that motivate all learners and that a greater understanding of these drivers by schools and teachers can help to increase levels of self-motivation.

  • Affiliation: feelings of belonging and connectedness with others. Students with a strong sense of affiliation feel that they belong to the school; they are included, accepted, respected and supported by staff and their fellow pupils.
  • Agency: the degree of self-belief or self-confidence. It is the belief that one has the capacity and ability to learn and achieve. Young people who believe that they can learn and achieve their goals through effort and technique, are much more likely to succeed. By contrast, the belief that ability is fixed is a major cause of underachievement in schools. 
  • Autonomy: the capacity to be self-determining and to exercise control over our lives. In a school context, autonomy refers to the extent to which learners are empowered to make choices and decisions about their learning and to take actions either as an individual or as part of a group.

McLean believes that greater motivation for all can be achieved where schools foster affiliation, agency and autonomy, whilst reducing levels of alienation, anxiety and apathy. McLean’s recently developed 'Learning Stances' framework focuses on the pupil’s standing within the group and the nature of his or her engagement with others. The Learning Stances framework can be used to explain differences within and between learners and to determine different motivational drivers affecting each individual. The differentiating characteristics of each stance, together with the pupil drivers help teachers to provide appropriate learning experiences for pupils.

Image of young boy being bounced on a trampoline

The implications for teachers and schools

'We need to rethink our traditional views of motivation. This means setting aside the assumption that people are primarily motivated by rewards and punishments, or getting good grades and instead assuming that, in the right atmosphere, young people will contribute and make commitments because they want to learn, to do good work for its own sake and be recognised as people.' Peter Senge, 'The Fifth Discipline'


There are profound implications for teachers, schools and the education system as a whole in Peter Senge’s message. The implications go well beyond learning and teaching in the classroom to personal and professional development for teachers and how we lead and manage our schools. This means rethinking our traditional models of motivation so that schools play down the role of rewards, competition and comparing young people, emphasising instead the importance of personal goals and targets and fostering a climate that builds and sustains higher levels of intrinsic motivation.

Alan Mclean identifies strategies that will help schools to develop a climate where both teachers and students can become more self-motivated. He calls them the ‘external drivers’ of motivation. They are:

  • Engagement - taking a genuine interest in individuals: valuing, respecting and affirming them as people and having high expectations of what they might achieve.
  • Structure - providing people with a secure environment in which they know where they stand and are clear what is expected of them and what needs to be done.
  • Stimulation - providing interesting, challenging and enjoyable learning activities that arouse their curiosity and make them want to learn.
  • Feedback - talking regularly with people about what they have achieved and making using praise and positive comments where appropriate, but also ensuring that feedback is honest, accurate, and realistic and, where appropriate, critical.

McLean believes that these four drivers operate across two dimensions: relationships and power. Young people become empowered through stimulation and structure and find affirmation in engagement and feedback. 

The main messages

  • Motivation comes from the self: it is locked from the inside out.

  • Although children are all born with intrinsic motivation to learn, levels of self-motivation decline as they progress through the education system.

  • Children begin to form beliefs about their ability at an early age and these attitudes can affect motivation and achievement.

  • Children’s natural motivation to learn needs to be nurtured and stimulated rather than controlled.

  • Children’s thoughts, positive or negative, have a big influence on their motivation, especially their ideas about progress and ability.

  • Intrinsic motivation is more effective than systems based on extrinsic rewards and sanctions.

  • Emotions play a major role in both motivation and learning.

Further reading

Books to help you reflect

'Six Pillars of Self Esteem' (Nathaniel Branden, 2004)

'Wise Up' (Bloomsbury, 2000)

'The Motivated Mind, Bantam Press' (Raj Persaud, 2005)

'The Brain’s Behind It' (Alistair Smith, Network Educational Press, 2004)

'Emotional Intelligence' (Daniel Goleman, Bantam Press, 1995)

'Social Intelligence' (Daniel Goleman, Bantam Press, 2006)


Books with practical ideas 

'The Motivated School' (Alan McLean, Chapman, 2003)

'Teaching Through Encouragement' (Robert Martin, Prentice Hall, 1980)


Useful websites

Further research

Explore Learning and Teaching Scotland's Research Round-Up.

In association with Education Scotland