Motivation and learning: what comes first?

The importance of motivation has long been a contentious topic in education. At first sight it seems straightforward: if our pupils are motivated, they will learn better. After all, isn’t that also true of ourselves, don’t we work harder when we do something that motivates us? No surprise then that there have been many initiatives and attempts to increase the motivation of pupils, from giving stars to ‘gamification’, or connecting the curriculum to the interests of pupils. This has not always been for the better. Often making lessons ‘fun’ has led to little learning, or little content, which is especially detrimental to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. So it is also not surprising that there has been a backlash to some of the well-meaning but misguided approaches to improving motivation used in classrooms and schools. Many (including me in ‘Effective Teaching, Evidence and Practice’) have pointed out that research shows that the best way to increase motivation is learning itself, and the feeling of mastery we gain when we are successful. That is true, but the actual quote in the book is that the effect of attainment on motivation is stronger than the effect of motivation on attainment, so there is a reciprocal aspect to the relationship. However, it’s worth saying that this statement came from studies conducted up to the 2000’s, so it makes sense to take a look at what recent research says about this relationship.

Motivation is a popular theme in educational psychology, so there is a lot of research in this area. That is why I looked primarily at research reviews and meta-analyses, which summarize the many studies on this, and at studies that were methodologically designed in such a way that they allow us to measure cause and effect (so they must measure motivation and attainment on at least two consecutive timepoints). In order to see the most up-to-date results, we limited ourselves to studies from the last five years. The list of articles is below.

This shows a numberof things. Firstly, that it is quite difficult to define motivation. It is one of those concepts that we all think we understand, but if you look at what is being researched, it turns out that it is not that simple. We found over ten different definitions of motivation in our studies.

Secondly, it is clear that the relationship is indeed reciprocal. Performance certainly has an effect on motivation, but the reverse is also true. In primary schools the influence of attainment on motivation is consistently stronger than the other way around. In secondary education, however, this is less clear – there they appear to influence each other about equally strongly. The latter may be because by secondary pupils are more set in in ways of thinking about themselves and subjects while in primary the relationship is still more fluid. We also see that pupil motivation decreases in early adolescence. This happens internationally, regardless of the age at which the transition from primary to secondary education takes place in a particular country, so is probably more a maturational effect than anything to do with transition itself.

So does or doesn’t it make sense to use various strategies to try to increase motivation? Focusing on strategies that improve learning remains the most important strategy. Getting a sense of mastery and learning is motivating in itself. But what we want is for pupils to end up in a positive spiral, in which motivation and learning continuously reinforce each other. It can therefore also be useful to focus directly on increasing motivation in addition to improving attainment. We can do this by ensuring that pupils experience success, but also by setting realistic but ambitious goals. Rewards and even forms of gamification may help initially (to help pupils get into a positive spiral in the first place). Classroom norms that encourage trying (even if it does not work out) help. Ranking pupils on the other hand can be demotivating.
What then is the update on the attainment-motivation relationship? It’s still true that attainment has a greater effect on motivation than vice versa, but let’s not forget that there is still a vice versa. Some attention to motivation is therefore warranted, and there are strategies we can use that avoid us falling into the trap of content-free ‘entertainment’.

Papers reviewed

  1. Martin, A.J., & Lazendic, G. (2018). Achievement in large-scale national numeracy assessment: An ecological study of motivation and student, home, and school predictors. Journal of Educational Psychology.
  2. Gunderson, E., Park, D., Maloney, E., Beilock, S. & Levine, S. (2018) Reciprocal relations among motivational frameworks, math anxiety, and math achievement in early elementary school, Journal of Cognition and Development, 19:1, 21-46, DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2017.1421538
  3. Hebbecker, K., Förster, N. & Souvignier, E. (2019) Reciprocal Effects between Reading Achievement and Intrinsic and Extrinsic Reading Motivation, Scientific Studies of Reading, 23:5, 419-436, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2019.1598413
  4. Liou, Y. & Hou, S. (2018). Potential reciprocal relationship between motivation and achievement: A longitudinal study. School Psychology International, 2018, 38-55. DOI: 10.1177/0143034317710574
  5. Schoeber, C., Schutte, K., Koeller, O., McElvany, N. & Bauer, M. (2018). Reciprocal effects between self-efficacy and achievement in mathematics and reading. Learning and Individual Differences, 63(1), 1-11.
  6. Arens, A.. K., Frenzel, A. & Goetz, T. (2020): Self-Concept and Self-Efficacy in Math: Longitudinal Interrelations and Reciprocal Linkages with Achievement, The Journal of Experimental Education, DOI: 10.1080/00220973.2020.1786347
  7. Scherrer, V. & Preckel, F. (2019). Development of Motivational Variables and Self- Esteem During the School Career: A Meta- Analysis of Longitudinal Studies. Review of Educational Research, 89(2), 211-258.
  8. Howard, J., Bureau, J., Guay, F., Chong, J. & Ryan, R. (2021). Student Motivation and Associated Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis From Self-Determination Theory. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2021, Vol. 16(6) 1300–1323
  9. Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (Eds.). (2012). Motivation and self-regulated learning: Theory, research, and applications. Routledge. 9780203831076
  10. Toste, J., Didion, L., Peng, P., Filderman, M. & McClelland, A. (2020). A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relations Between Motivation and Reading Achievement for K–12 Students. Review of Educational Research June 2020, Vol. 90, No. 3, pp. 420–456 DOI:
  11. Moeller, J., Zitzmann, S., Helm, F., Machts, M. & Wolff, F. (2020). A Meta-Analysis of Relations Between Achievement and Self-Concept. Review of Educational Research June 2020, Vol. 90, No. 3, pp. 376–419 DOI:
  12. Vu, TV, Magis-Weinberg, L., Jansen, B., van Atteveldt, N., Janssen, T., Lee, N., van der Haas, H., Raijmakers, M., Sachistal, M. & Meeter, M. (2022). Motivation-Achievement Cycles in Learning: a Literature Review and Research Agenda. Educational Psychology Review (2022) 34:39–71
  13. Lazowski, R. & Hulleman, S. (2016). Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602-640.

3 thoughts on “Motivation and learning: what comes first?

  1. Daniel,

    Motivation is very important to get things started. Every teacher should strive to motivate their students. But being motivated doesn’t ensure success. Continually failing, hitting a brick wall quickly lowers the motivation to zero. On the other hand, motivated or not achieving success leads to increased motivation for more. In other words, motivation doesn’t lead to success, but success breeds motivation.


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