Research School Network: How do we Solve the Problem of Motivation? Part One: The Motivation Myth Daisy Holland-Selby on the challenges of tackling pupil motivation

How do we Solve the Problem of Motivation? Part One: The Motivation Myth

Daisy Holland-Selby on the challenges of tackling pupil motivation

For the many students who enter secondary school with low literacy levels, tackling the most basic of tasks across all subjects can seem like a huge hurdle. It is no surprise then, that many students’ perceptions, based on their past successes or lack thereof, lead them to think that they are not competent enough to be successful. This repeated failure can also undermine their understanding of the reasons for completing tasks, meaning that the students risk never gaining the autonomy that we often associate with motivation. Therefore, one of the major challenges for teachers is motivating students to engage in learning that many students associate with failure.

The innate everyday beliefs we hold about motivation and behaviour change tend to be: 

  1. Individual wants to initiate a lifestyle change
  2. The same individual then possesses the motivation to do so
  3. Positive behaviour change ensues.

I think most of us reading this have some insight into the inaccuracy of this motivation myth. How many of us have made new years resolutions or promised ourselves positive life style changes that, despite our desire to change a behaviour, have never come to fruition? It would seem, most unfortunately, that possessing the desire to change a behaviour is not quite enough.

How do the myths we hold affect our approaches to teaching?

There is no doubt that it was my passion for literature and my belief in the extraordinary power of words, that drove me to pursue a career in teaching English. When I entered the profession, I was certain that it was this passion that would propel the motivation of my students: they would recognise and relate to the deep melancholy of Keats or be in awe of Shakespeare’s ability to reveal the complexities of the human psyche. By what method did I think I would instill this love in my students? In hindsight, I must have thought via some form of osmosis – it would be my passion alone that would spark the same joy for words in them as it had done me. my naivety that this would be the defining contribution to my students’ motivation was soon exposed when I took on my first teaching role. 

Many of the students entering the school at KS3 had significant gaps in their literacy. As a result, from a young age, their experiences of reading and writing had not necessarily been positive ones and perhaps many of the students associated English lessons with struggle for little gain. At the time, I recall growing frustrated with students, and questioning their refusal to engage in reading or the joys of word play and writing creatively. Many students would stare blankly at a tattered copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid that they borrowed from the library the year before I was employed at the school. If only they would read a few pages, they would suddenly be imbued with the same deep affection for stories as me.

These myths we hold, despite seeming quite harmless, can potentially become quite toxic. Certainly, if the assumptions we hold regarding a student’s lack of motivation place the onus on them: they are not trying hard enough; they are lazy; they have low aspirations or they are not interested in my subject. What can happen here is we apportion blame to the student, which provides the teacher with a rationale for the lack of motivation but doesn’t offer us a way to change it. Furthermore, if we impart these views to the student, we run the risk of undermining their sense of self efficacy further, exacerbating their lack of motivation.

How can psychological theories of motivation challenge our thinking regarding motivation?

A brief summary of 3 approaches:

1. Self-efficacy. Perceived self-efficacy could affect academic motivation as a result of the judgements students make regarding their capacity to reach desired goals. In fact, such judgements have been shown to impact a variety of motivational choices, such as effort, tenacity and emotional wellbeing.

If we consider students who enter secondary school with lower literacy levels, we might attribute their lack of motivation to a lack of self-efficacy. Their previous struggle to access texts because of poor comprehension may have lowered their rating of their ability to read successfully. These experiences of failure, certainly if they have occurred before a sense of efficacy has been acquired, can undermine the learning process and naturally cause a reduction in motivation.

2. Expectancy value theory (EV):
Considers the degree individuals think they will be successful if they try (expectancy) and the value they place upon completing that task.

Therefore, if students’ motivation is dependent on the degree of expectancy’ that the outcome of their efforts will result in success alongside the perceived personal importance, value or intrinsic interest in doing the task, their past successes must surely impact on their future motivation: the more successful they are in an activity, the more likely they are to be motivated to strive for further success in the future. Worryingly, a negative self-concept becomes much worse as students age, with younger students having a much more positive self-concept than their older peers.

3. Self Determination Theory (SDT)
SDT focuses on different types of motivation and the psychosocial needs that can either enhance or undermine it.

Cook Artino
Cook, D. A., & Artino Jr, A. R. (2016)

Reflecting on my own students, SDT provides some insight into why they may be amotivated and how I might be able to apply some elements of the theory to help improve motivation in this area. Certainly, when I consider their psychosocial needs, I can see how some of them may be inhibited by perceived negative feedback – if in the past, they have not been successful when completing similar tasks, they might not feel they have the competence to complete it well, thus potentially choosing to avoid the task. I can see how SDT, could evolve some lethal mutations in schools. We could start to refer to extrinsic motivation negatively to promote the more desirable intrinsic motivation – learning just for the love of it. However, when I consider my own motivations many of them are what I would define as extrinsic: although I am passionate about my job and love the students I teach, it is externally regulated by the reward of a monthly paycheck. Even the writing of this blog is extrinsically motivated, somewhat internally, because of the value I and Dixons Academies Trust, place on academia and evidence informed practice. Therefore, we need to be careful in our respective institutions to not pigeon hole students as either extrinsically motivated or intrinsically and recognise that the diverse types of motivation are on more of a continuum. 

So how do we solve the problem of motivation?

The answer is: we can’t!

But what we can do is use our understanding of some of the psychosocial theories to help inform how we plan for our amotivated students. What appears to be at the center of all three theories discussed here, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a sense of success. Incorporating strategies into our lessons that empower our students to feel successful could be the most significant next step! Next time, I’ll explore the practical ways we can do this within a classroom setting.


Cook, D. A., & Artino Jr, A. R. (2016) Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories. Medical Education 50 (10): 9971014

Daisy Holland-Selby is English Lead Practitioner at Dixons Allerton Academy. She is also an Evidence Lead for Dixons Academies Trust, focusing on the evidence around cognitive science.

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