Motivation: Understanding and Responding to Individual Differences

A basic educational principle is that no matter how well teachers design their instruction, students who refuse to engage can ensure the teachers’ instruction will come to naught. This simple truth leads teachers on a continuous search for ways to motivate students. While teachers at all levels face this challenge, middle level teachers often find the dynamics of motivation especially complex. Many report that students begin the school year with negative perceptions of their subjects. As one teacher told us, “Every year, on the first day of school, I hear at least one student say ‘I hate math’ before I even have a chance to begin a lesson.”

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning.
  • Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant

Over the past half century, research on how to motivate students has undergone transformations along multiple dimensions. The focus in classroom motivation research has shifted from extrinsic to intrinsic and from behavioral to cognitive. In this research summary we will briefly describe those changes and argue that a modern view of how students are motivated should be based on a combination of traditional and revised principles. Our hope is that a better understanding of these principles can provide a foundation for a better understanding of individual differences.

Traditional Views of Motivation

The psychology of motivation was dominated for a generation by behaviorists’ theories of reinforcement (a good general resource for the current behaviorist position is Fisher, Piazza & Roane, 2011). The predominant view is B. F. Skinner’s but Pavlov and many others contributed. With reinforcement, the frequency or strength of desirable behaviors (e.g., performance on classwork) can be increased by the provision of positive consequences (e.g., tangible rewards or praise; positive reinforcement) or by the removal of aversive consequences (e.g., teacher nagging; negative reinforcement). With punishment, undesirable behaviors (e.g., inattention) can be decreased by provision of aversive consequences (e.g., teacher admonitions; positive punishment) or removal of privileges (e.g., participation in recess; negative punishment). From this perspective, teachers can motivate their students by finding consequences that make desirable behaviors more likely and undesirable behaviors less likely.

Over time, for both ethical and practical reasons, most proponents of a behaviorist perspective largely abandoned use of punishment and negative reinforcement in favor of positive reinforcement (“catch the student being good”), particularly in classrooms. Positive reinforcement serves two important functions. Because students work to attain positive consequences, reinforcers provide incentive. Incentives are particularly important in the mastery of basic skills when learning those skills is not intrinsically interesting or rewarding (e.g., learning to proofread, learning arithmetic facts and rules). Perhaps more important in many educational situations, reinforcers also provide feedback. When a student successfully solves a series of mathematics problems in a computer game, the exploding screen may have some minimal incentive value, but the message that the students’ responses were correct is even more important.

There is a great deal of research that demonstrates the efficacy of using contingent reinforcers for motivating students in the development of a wide variety of skills, from basic arithmetic and reading skills to compliance with classroom rules. The archives of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (available online at document the many ways that reinforcement has been shown to modify student behavior.

Problems with Traditional Views of Motivation and the Cognitive Alternatives

The judicious use of positive reinforcement should be a tool of every wise person who deals with other people, especially young people (and significant others). It is important to provide students with incentives for completing tasks and feedback on performance accuracy. However, research has revealed a number of problems with the practical use of reinforcers. Because what is reinforcing can vary greatly from student to student, identifying effective reinforcers can be difficult. Moreover, specific reinforcers lose their power over time. Perhaps most important, a large body of research shows that the use of extrinsic reinforcers can undermine intrinsic motivation (see the collection of papers in Sansone & Harackiewicz, 2000).

The researchers reporting undermining effects of extrinsic reinforcers have been cognitivists, not behaviorists. In the cognitive view of motivation it is important to consider how learners think about reinforcers and motivation in general. The proponents of the cognitive view of motivation argue that learners are always making attributions or explanations for their behavior. Thus, when students are reinforced for performing actions they would have done without rewards, they attribute their motivation to the receiving of the reward instead of their intrinsic interest in the task. They “over justify” the reasons for their work, putting the emphasis on a contingent reward. This kind of attribution has become known as the “overjustification effect.” For students who internalize this attribution, play turns into work. An educational implication of the cognitive view is that attempts to affect the behavior of students should use the minimal amount of control that will do the job. Teachers want their students to believe that they behaved appropriately because they wanted to, not because they were coerced.

As the research literature on the overjustification effect was developing, Ryan and Deci (2009) offered their self-determination theory as a rationale for why extrinsic reinforcers are often counterproductive. Their theory posits that perceived needs for autonomy and competence (along with relatedness) are the major motivators of our behavior. Activities that enhance freedom of choice and build competence are preferred. Actions that interfere with a sense of control, including extrinsic reinforcers, are avoided. In the mid-1990s, advocates of the use of extrinsic reinforcers (Cameron & Pierce, 1994, 1996) and some of the major investigators of undermining effects (Lepper, Keavney & Drake, 1996; Ryan & Deci, 1996) debated the efficacy of reinforcers and when they are problematic. Although the issues are often technical as well as philosophical, a short version of the outcomes of this debate would lead a fairly objective observer to conclude that the use of extrinsic rewards can be detrimental to intrinsic motivation when the rewards are expected, tangible, and not based on performance. Rewards can enhance motivation when they are unexpected, verbal, and based on performance (Deci and Ryan and Lepper would probably still disagree).

Motivation and Theories of Intelligence

Among the cognitively-oriented theories of motivation, Carol Dweck’s “mindset” theory (Dweck, 2006) has recently generated important research directly applicable to the classroom. Dweck argues that how students think about intelligence has a major impact on academic motivation. Some students have a mindset (a theory of intelligence) that sees intelligence as something each of us has in a certain amount that is not going to change. Dweck calls this a “fixed” mindset or a “trait” theory of intelligence. Students with a fixed mindset work toward performance goals including grades and other positive judgments by teachers and peers. They want to look good. As a result, students with a fixed mindset avoid challenging tasks (you do not want to risk failing and looking bad), judge effort to be a waste of time (smart people don’t have to work hard), and tend to be grade-oriented (attain high grades if possible, but certainly avoid low ones) rather than oriented toward learning for learning’s sake. Learning by students with performance goals tends to be shallow and impermanent (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001).

Other students have what Dweck calls a “growth” mindset or an “incremental” theory of intelligence. Their view of intelligence is that it is something that can change. Students with a growth mindset work toward learning goals. They want to understand and master material rather than doing just enough to get a good grade. They believe students can get smarter by working harder or working in different, more effective ways. Taking on challenges is the major way to get smarter. Failure is a step on the way to learning and thus getting smarter, not something to avoid. Effort leads to learning and learning makes you smarter. Empirical studies have demonstrated ways that these mindsets impact academic performance across the middle grades (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Romero, Master, Paunesku, Dweck, & Gross, 2014). Studies have also shown how teachers’ mindsets affect the judgments they make about students and how they respond to them. Teachers with fixed mindsets may be less likely to challenge students and their fixed mindsets may negatively influence students’ views of themselves (Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012).

The teacher’s role is different from the perspectives of the two mindsets. For the student with a fixed mindset, the teacher is an evaluator who determines whether or not you have enough ability to succeed. The teacher makes judgments about performance and doles out grades. For the student with a growth mindset, the teacher is a resource and guide, setting challenging tasks, offering feedback as needed and providing tools to enhance learning. Importantly, Dweck and her colleagues have also shown that mindsets can be changed (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). Teachers and parents can help students learn that effort, not ability, is most important in learning and that how smartly they can deal with academic tasks is not set by genetic limits. One of the most important things teachers and parents can do is to reinforce effort (You really worked hard to solve that problem) not ability (You are so smart).

Academic Motivation in Context

In the real world of classrooms the motivation of any student is multiply determined. When students enter middle school they typically encounter more teachers whose focus is academic. The intrinsic motivation of students shows a general decline in the transition to middle school (Anderman & Mueller, 2010). Thus middle school seems an appropriate place for instruction that encourages growth mindsets, incremental theories of intelligence, and learning goals. However, many middle school students, including the strongest students, will simultaneously hold both performance goals and learning goals (Pintrich, 2000). Those students want to learn, but they also want to look successful, want to please teachers and parents, and may even want to outdo some of their peers. Although there are theorists who argue that mastery/learning goals are always more adaptive, there is much evidence that the motivation of middle school students is quite complex (see Linnenbrink, 2005).

Moreover, it will come as no surprise to middle school teachers that students hold social as well as academic motivational goals (Dowson & McInerney, 2003). Some of these social goals can help enhance academic performance (e.g., wanting to work with peers on projects, wanting to help others) while others may present challenges to meeting academic goals (e.g., wanting to maintain nonacademic social relationships, inappropriate behavior designed to gain peer approval and avoid rejection). Regardless, the middle school teacher who fails to consider social sources of motivation will be in trouble. There are too many sources of reinforcement in the peer culture (Ladd, Herald-Brown, & Kochel, 2009).

To examine these dynamics empirically, Patrick, Kaplan, and Ryan (2011) analyzed survey data from two different samples of middle level students. Initially, they collected data from 537 fifth graders and then repeated the same surveys with these same students when they entered seventh grade. A subsequent sample included more than 700 sixth graders. Measures of classroom goal structures encompassed perceptions of teachers’ emphasis on understanding ideas, developing new skills, learning from errors, and enjoying learning. Measures of classroom social climate encompassed perceptions of the extent to which teachers care about students as people, care about individual learning, encourage respect among classmates, and encourage collaboration among students. Results showed that students reported higher levels of motivation to learn when teachers created supportive classroom social climates. Related studies have shown that supportive social climate can also enhance curiosity (Engel, 2011).

In addition to creating supportive social climates for learning, teachers can also enhance motivation by providing students with choices of instructional activities. Patall, Cooper, and Robinson (2008) identified 41 studies that examined the effects of providing instructional choices on intrinsic motivation. Their meta-analysis of these studies showed that having choices “can have a positive overall effect on intrinsic motivation, as well as on a number of related outcomes including effort, task performance, perceived competence, and preference for challenge” (p. 294). Having choices had the greatest impact when choices were authentic and reinforced a sense of autonomy.

What Can Teachers Do to Increase Motivation?

When considered together, the studies we have reviewed in this research summary underscore the complexity of motivation. The ways that students see themselves as learners, their views of learning, and their perceptions of rewards are all important factors. Major principles of motivation provide a general framework for understanding individual differences:

  • Some students find extrinsic rewards meaningful; for others, extrinsic rewards may restrict motivation.
  • Some students see intelligence as a fixed trait, want to look good to others, and avoid challenges; others have a growth mindset, believe effort leads to learning, and will undertake challenges.
  • Some students respond well to encouragement from peers; others are less likely to be influenced by classmates.

Although instructional activities that engage some students may not engage everyone, teachers can encourage higher levels of engagement by emphasizing effort more than ability and by creating supportive social climates for learning. Specific recommendations include:

1. Use rewards judiciously to provide feedback first, and incentives only when necessary. Use praise rather than tangible rewards. Praise effort not ability. Use the least amount of control possible that still leads to appropriate behavior.

2. Provide instructional choices and create novel environments that will elicit curiosity. Plan for a very broad range of student interests. Create environments that repeatedly elicit situational curiosity while building dispositional curiosity over the long run.

3. Make the classroom a safe place for productive failure. Students need to be challenged while, at the same time, understand that failure is often an important step on the way to true learning.

4. Use social motivation to enhance academic motivation. Show students that you care about them as individuals. Encourage respect among classmates at all times and collaboration when appropriate.


Anderman, E. M., & Mueller, C. E. (2010). Middle school transitions and adolescent  development. In J. L. Meece & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Handbook of research on schools,  schooling, and human development (pp. 198-215). New York: Routledge.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an  intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263.

Cameron, J., & Pierce, W. D. (1994). Reinforcement, reward, and intrinsic motivation: A meta- analysis. Review of Educational Research, 64, 363-423.

Cameron, J., & Pierce, W. D. (1996). The debate about rewards and intrinsic motivation: Protests and accusations do not alter the results. Review of Educational Research, 66, 39-51.

Dowson, M., & McInerney, D. M. (2003). What do students say about their motivational goals?: Towards a more complex and dynamic perspective on student motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 91-113.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Engel, S. (2011). Children’s need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81, 625-645.

Fisher, W. W., Piazza, C. C., & Roane, H. S. (Eds.). (2011). Handbook of applied behavior analysis. New York: Guilford.

Ladd, G. W., Herald-Brown, S. L., & Kochel, K. P. (2009). Peers and motivation. In K. R. Wentzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 323-348). New York: Routledge.

Lepper, M. R., Keavney, M., & Drake, M. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic rewards: A commentary on Cameron and Pierce’s meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66, 5-32.

Linnenbrink, E. A. (2005). The dilemma of performance-approach goals: The use of multiple goal contexts to promote students’ motivation and learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 197-213.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. (2001). Performance-approach goals: Good for what, for whom, under what circumstances, and what cost? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 77-86.

National Middle School Association [NMSA]. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH; Author.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 270–300.

Patrick, P., Kaplan, A., & Ryan, A. M. (2011). Positive classroom motivational environments: Convergence between mastery goal structure and classroom social climate. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 367–382.

Pintrich, P. R. (2000). Multiple goals, multiple pathways: The role of goal orientation on learning and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 544-555.

Rattan, A., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). “It’s ok—not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 731-737.

Romero, C., Master, A., Paunesku, D., Dweck, C. S., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Academic and emotional functioning in middle school: The role of implicit theories. Emotion, 14, 227-234.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (1996). When paradigms clash: Comments on Cameron and Pierce’s claim that rewards do not undermine intrinsic motivation. Review of Educational Research, 66, 33-38.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2009). Promoting self-determined school engagement: Motivation, learning and well-being. In K. R. Wentzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 171-195). New York: Routledge.

Sansone, C., & Harackiewicz, J. (Eds.). (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance. San Diego: Academic Press.

Annotated References

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263.

In the first study reported here the researchers showed that middle level students who endorsed a growth mindset (an incremental theory of intelligence) showed an upward trajectory in grades over time whereas those who endorsed a fixed mindset (a trait theory of intelligence) showed a flat trajectory. In the second study, an eight-session teaching intervention was conducted with an experimental group of seventh graders. It focused on teaching the students how to think incrementally (how they could grow their intelligence through learning and avoiding stereotypes). Compared to a control group, the interventions group members’ grades showed a halt in a downward trajectory and their classroom motivation increased. [Note: This report includes a brief description of the intervention sessions.]

Romero, C., Master, A., Paunesku, D., Dweck, C. S., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Academic and emotional functioning in middle school: The role of implicit theories. Emotion, 14, 227-234.

The investigators assessed the mindsets and obtained the grades and course selections of 115 students throughout middle school. Students who believed that that intelligence could be increased (i.e., held growth mindsets) earned higher grades and were more likely to choose to take more advanced math courses over middle school. In terms of emotions, students who believed that emotions could be controlled were less likely to report depressive symptoms and were more likely to show increases over time in general emotional well-being. The declines in academic motivation and performance and emotional well-being often found in middle level schools are not inevitable.

Engel, S. (2011). Children’s need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81, 625-645.

Engel argued that curiosity is rarely cultivated in classrooms. She reviewed research that shows that interactions with both teachers and peers can have a significant impact on the development of a student’s curiosity. She makes a plea for educational systems to make the development of curiosity a priority by nurturing students’ interests and encouraging their exploration of novel environments.

Rattan, A., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). “It’s ok—not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 731-737.

Teachers, not just students, have theories of intelligence. The four studies summarized here showed that: (a) teachers with fixed mindsets (entity theories of intelligence) were more likely to make judgments about their students’ abilities than teachers with growth mindsets (incremental theories of intelligence); (b) teachers with fixed mindsets were more likely to “comfort” their students and less likely to challenge them to engage difficult material; and (c) students picked up on their teachers’ low expectations with lower motivation and lower expectations for themselves.

Recommended Resources

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. NY: Random House. Related resources available on the Mindset website:

Marzano, R. & Pickering, D. J. (2011). The highly engaged classroom. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Author Information

Bruce Henderson is professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. Much of his research has focused on the development of curiosity and the development of memory.

David Strahan is the Taft B. Botner Distinguished Professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at Western Carolina University. He is a member of AMLE’s Research Advisory Committee and executive advisor for the AERA Middle Level Education Research Special Interest Group. His major research interests are responsive instructional practices and teachers’ professional growth.

Published October 2014