Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Adolescent educational motivation

Adolescent educational motivation:
How can we enhance adolescents' school motivation?

Overview edit

Case study

Raphael is an intelligent 15-year-old boy who is not interested in school. He has a history of frequent absenteeism. At primary school, he loved working on self-directed projects where he was able to focus on art and history, his two passions. However, since joining high school he feels like most of the work is meaningless and everyone just wants him to toe the line, do the work assigned and not make waves. He feels like he can’t understand the work and even when he tries he still fails all the tests. The teachers are always criticising him and he thinks they don’t like him and would rather he be someone else’s problem. Raphael is at risk of leaving school prior to completing year 10. Without an adequate education his future looks grim…

People are innately curious (Ryan & Deci, 2016), on the whole they want to learn and contribute to society (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Most children begin school wanting to learn (Hock, Deshler, & Schumaker, 2011), but for some this desire doesn’t seem to last once they transition to high school and become teenagers.

Why do some teenagers seem to lack motivation at school and what can we do to help them?

Figure 1. Teenagers collaborating at school

Motivation directs, energises and maintains behaviour in order to facilitate a desired change or state (Reeve, 2018). There are two main types, intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to acting simply for the joy of it, whereas extrinsic motivation is externally driven often through rewards and punishments, and consists of four levels ranging from complete external regulation to integrated regulation which involves acting because the outcome is personally valued (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991; Ryan & Deci, 2016). Figure 2 details six specific levels of motivation as proposed by Ryan and Deci (2000).  

Figure 2. Types of motivation

Whilst intrinsic motivation has been shown to be the most effective type of motivation for learning (Chang, Fukuda, Durham, & Little, 2017; Ryan & Deci, 2000), this is not always achievable in school environments where there are prescribed curriculum and assessment requirements (Eccles et al., 1993). The next best options are integrated regulation where students are motivated by a desire to understand a particular topic or identified regulation where students are motivated because achievement leads to another benefit, such as gaining a place at university (Chang et al., 2017; Ryan & Deci, 2000). In this chapter these higher levels of motivation will be collectively referred to as self-determined motivation. Lower levels of extrinsic motivation, such as external regulation which involves the use of explicit external rewards and/or punishments, are not as effective for learning and can undermine any existing, or potential future, intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2016).

What is special about adolescents?

As young people move into adolescence and start high school, research (Gillet, Vallerand, & Lafrenière, 2012; Mansfield & Wosnitza, 2010) has indicated that there is a shift in the type and extent of motivation for learning. A Canadian study (Gillet et al., 2012), of 1,606 students aged 9-17 years, found that self-determined motivation fell in students aged 9-12 years and did not start to rise again until age 15 years. These findings were consistent with two earlier studies (Eccles et al., 1993; Mansfield & Wosnitza, 2010) which suggested that the decline was in part due to changes in the learning environment, such as more focus on performance rather than outcomes (Ryan & Deci, 2016), as young people move into high school. This highlights the important role the environment plays in shaping educational motivation in teenagers (Eccles et al., 1993).

Neurobiological factors also affect motivation in teenagers (Luna, Paulsen, Padmanabhan, & Geier, 2013). Based on a review of literature and their own studies, Luna et al. (2013) concluded that teenagers tend to have increased dopamine levels (compared to adults), which appears to be associated with seeking out high sensation rewards, and increased ventral striatum activity when completing tasks involving a reward. In a classroom situation, this potentially creates an extra challenge, as educational activities are competing with other activities which students are likely to see as providing higher sensation rewards, such as annoying a particularly volatile student.

What can be done to overcome these additional challenges?


This chapter on adolescent educational motivation will cover:

  • three relevant theories and related research;
  • propose a consolidated model; and
  • suggest some key strategies for enhancing adolescent motivation at school.  

Relevant theories edit

There are variety of psychology theories for motivational. In this chapter we will focus on the self-determination theory, goal setting theory, and self-efficacy theory. [Provide more detail]

Self-determination theory edit

The Self-determination theory (SDT) is arguably the most widely supported, holistic and applicable theory cited in recent research on educational motivation (Deci et al., 1991; Guay, Ratelle, & Chanal, 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2016; Van den Berghe, Vansteenkiste, Cardon, Kirk, & Haerens, 2014). Self-determination refers to voluntary, internally driven behaviour (Deci et al., 1991) and it is associated with self-determined motivation and having a perceived internal locus of control (see Figure 2). The theory posits that for individuals to reach their full potential their psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence must be met (see Figure 3) (Deci et al., 1991).

Figure 3. Self-Determination Theory

Autonomy edit

Autonomy refers to being in control of initiating and regulating one’s own behaviour (Deci et al., 1991). In the school education context, both teachers and parents should provide autonomy support (Deci et al., 1991). Teacher autonomy support involves activities such as acknowledging the students’ feelings, encouraging active participation and providing students with choices, clear expectations, structured guidance, and constructive feedback (Chang et al., 2017). Parental autonomy support involves activities such as acknowledging feelings, providing choices and reasons why essential tasks need to be completed (Guay et al., 2008). In the Canadian study (Gillet et al., 2012) mentioned in the Overview, both teacher and parent autonomy support had significant positive correlations with self-determined motivation, and teacher support mediated the relationship between age and self-determined motivation.

Autonomy is an important psychological need across the lifetime (Ryan, 2016). There has been a tendency to reduce autonomy support as teenagers become more independent, however teenagers need just as much autonomy support as younger children (Guay et al., 2008). In addition, teachers should be supported to develop their own autonomy through participation in professional development and supervisor support (Ryan, 2016). As with students, teachers also benefit when they work in an autonomy supportive environment (Ryan, 2016).

Relatedness edit

The second psychological need identified in the SDT is relatedness, which has been defined as making positive meaningful connections with others (Sheldon & Filak, 2008) via interpersonal involvement (Deci et al., 1991) and/or social support (Cham, Hughes, West, & Im, 2014). In the context of school education, this refers to both parent, teacher (Guay et al., 2008) and peer involvement (Cham et al., 2014) in the child’s learning. An Australian study (Sparks, Dimmock, Lonsdale, & Jackson, 2016) of high school physical education students using self-reported measures found that all levels of self-determined motivation were significantly positively correlated with relatedness, in terms of students feeling supported and appreciated by their teacher. Whilst it seems logical that establishing meaningful connections with peers would be important, this aspect of relatedness has not been well researched from an educational motivation perspective (Guay et al., 2008).

Competence edit

The final psychological need in the SDT is competence (Deci et al., 1991; Early et al., 2016; Guay et al., 2008; Maehr & Midgley, 1991) which is about feeling efficient and effective (Sheldon & Filak, 2008) and being able to tackle and overcome moderate challenges (Reeve, 2018). School teachers can assist students to develop competence by facilitating goal setting and providing clear expectations, positive feedback and guidance (Reeve, 2018; Ryan & Deci, 2016). An American experimental study (Sheldon & Filak, 2008) involving 196 university students and an academic word game, confirmed that student self-rated competence was significantly positively correlated with self-rated intrinsic motivation and positively associated with objective performance.  

Combining all three needs edit

All three psychological needs are important and inter-related (Ryan & Deci, 2000), however autonomy has been the most widely researched (Sheldon & Filak, 2008; Sparks et al., 2016). This is possibly because the SDT proposes that self-determined motivation is only positively correlated with relatedness and competence when autonomy is high (Deci et al., 1991). The American study (Sheldon & Filak, 2008) mentioned above provides some support for this proposal. They found that self-rated competence, autonomy and relatedness, were all significantly positively correlated with self-rated intrinsic motivation, however, competence was the only need that had a significant effect on objective performance.

Student-centred learning

When considered together, the three psychological needs identified in the SDT align well with the concept of a student-centred learning environment (SLE) (Chang et al., 2017; Smit, de Brabander, & Martens, 2014). Smit et al. (2014) described a SLE as placing students at the centre of their learning with teachers taking on more of a facilitation and mentoring role. A SLE is characterised by student choice and is active, challenging, problem-based, authentic, co-operative and self-regulated (Smit et al., 2014). Chang et al. (2017) suggested that a SLE was related most closely to autonomy, however it also appears to embody relatedness and competence. Smit et al. (2014) confirmed this similarity in their study of 230 teenagers which compared an SLE group with a teacher-centred learning environment (TLE) group, where the focus was on learning content from the teacher using prescribed resources and activities to control learning. The results showed that the SLE group had higher mean scores for self-reported autonomy, relatedness, competence and motivation (as measured by pleasure and effort).

Goal setting theory edit

Whilst the SDT includes goal setting as an aspect of competence (Reeve, 2018; Ryan & Deci, 2016), goal setting theory (GST) specifically focuses on how goals can be used to optimise motivation and performance (Locke & Latham, 2002). Goals represent the desired end state of an action (Locke & Latham, 2002) and thus provide direction for motivation. A review of research (Locke & Latham, 2002) indicated that having challenging goals directed attention and increased effort, action and persistence . Successful completion has been found to be most likely when individuals were committed to the goal, they believed it was important and that they could achieve it (self-efficacy), and they received feedback on their progress (Locke & Latham, 2002). Self-generated goals tended to result in greater feelings of autonomy and intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and higher goal setting and improved performance (Locke & Latham, 2002) than imposed goals. For more information on goal setting, see the chapter on Goal setting techniques.

Several studies (Mansfield, 2010; Mansfield & Wosnitza, 2010; Schuitema, Peetsma, & van der Veen, 2014; Travers, Morisano, & Locke, 2015) have investigated the benefits of various types of goals, with the most promising and interesting being future goals (Mansfield, 2010; Schuitema et al., 2014). Future goals for high school students was defined as post-school life goals, such as career and study aspirations (Mansfield, 2010; Schuitema et al., 2014). Having future goals (Mansfield, 2010) and an intervention involving the discussion of future goals and how to achieve them (Schuitema et al., 2014) both helped to motivate students at high school. In fact, Mansfield (2010) reported that all of the students in her Australian study wanted to do well at school and when they were asked why, 85% said they wanted to do well for reasons associated with future goals, such as getting a good job. This highlights the importance and relevance of the identified regulation type of extrinsic motivation and the potential to be able to influence this through targeted interventions at high school.

Possible Selves program

One program that has shown particularly positive results is the Possible Selves program (Hock, Schumaker & Deshler, 2003, as cited in Hock et al. (2011)). The teacher facilitated program involves six key components (Hock et al., 2011).

  1. Discovering. Students discuss their strengths and interests.
  2. Thinking. Students think about, discuss and document themselves and their future desires, expectations and fears.
  3. Sketching. Students draw a Possible Selves Tree which provides a pictorial representation of themselves and their future desires, expectations and fears and discuss how they can look after their tree.
  4. Reflecting. Students consider their options for the future and set goals by reflecting on their tree.
  5. Growing. Students consider how they can achieve their goals and develop a plan or pathway to assist with attaining their goals.
  6. Performing. Students evaluate how they are going with their goals, they revisit their Possible Selves Tree and plan.

A review (Hock et al., 2011) of studies evaluating the program indicated that it consistently resulted in improved academic performance when compared to control groups.

Self-efficacy theory edit

Self-efficacy is another important concept which warrants greater emphasis than has been given within the SDT and the GST. Self-efficacy is defined as a belief in one’s own capability to achieve a goal, and is affected by factors such as feedback and perceived controllability (Bandura, 1993). The self-efficacy theory (SET) proposes that people high in self-efficacy tend to be motivated by challenging tasks and those low in self-efficacy tend to avoid challenging tasks (Bandura, 1993). Research (Caprara et al., 2008; Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991) has confirmed significant positive relationships between self-efficacy and academic performance.


The need to provide feedback has been articulated as an important component in the SET, GST and SDT. One recent interesting study (Hsia, Huang, & Hwang, 2016) on peer-assessment, involved 163 high school students in Taiwan. Students worked in small (treatment or control) groups over seven weekly sessions to write, rehearse and perform a short play and all performances were evaluated, feedback was provided in writing, and revisions made prior to a final performance. The teacher evaluated the control groups and provided feedback. In the treatment groups each student evaluated the performances of all the other treatment groups and provided feedback. The results showed that students in the treatment groups showed significant improvements in their self-efficacy, motivation and performance and when compared with the control groups the treatment groups performed significantly better. This study highlights the benefits of students giving and receiving peer feedback.

Test yourself on the theories edit

Quiz Time!

1 What are the psychological needs described in the SDT?

Goal setting

2 In this chapter, feedback was mentioned in relation to which concepts?

Goal setting

3 What is self-efficacy?

Being a good friend
Social identity
Belief in one's own capability to achieve a goal

A consolidated model edit

The SDT provides a strong back bone for the establishment of a consolidated model to explain educational motivation in teenagers. As mentioned previously in this chapter, research on SDT has focused on the psychological need for autonomy. However, research on the applicability of the GST and SET has also highlighted, and provided evidence of, the importance of factors related to the psychological need for competence and relatedness, and the inter-connectedness between all three needs. In addition, three key themes were highlighted in the research on the three theories; the importance of feedback, self-efficacy and goal setting. Figure 4 illustrates a proposed consolidated model. Please note, the two-way arrows indicate the inter-connectedness and the proposed impact self-determined motivation can have on feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness.

Figure 4. A consolidated model for enhancing educational motivation in teenagers

Strategies for enhancing adolescent motivation at school edit

Based on the theories and research presented in this chapter, school teachers, parents and other students can all play a role in enhancing a student’s motivation at high school by engaging in the behaviours listed below.

  • Provide choices
  • Articulate clear expectations
  • Provide structure and guidance
  • Facilitate active participation
  • Justify decisions
  • Value students
  • Listen to students
  • Challenge students
  • Encourage collaboration
  • Facilitate the setting of short and long-term goals
  • Encourage self-regulation
  • Provide frequent positive and constructive feedback

Every Classroom, Every Day program

In addition to these supports for students, providing support for teachers, particularly in terms of providing professional development (Early et al., 2016) and providing autonomy support (Ryan, 2016) may also assist with improving student motivation and outcomes. The Every Classroom, Every Day program (Early et al., 2016) is a two-year program which has a particular focus on improving student performance by changing the way teachers teach and employs numerous strategies, such as articulating specific goals for each lesson and providing frequent feedback. Participating schools employed a dedicated coach to support the program implementation and teachers were provided with coaching and professional development and participated in regular meetings. Although Early et al. (2016) reported mixed success, the focus on professional development for teachers seems valuable and is also supported by Ryan (2016). 

Conclusion edit

Educational motivation presents a challenge for high schools, however research referenced in this chapter has shown there are a number of strategies school teachers, parents and other students can employ which can have a positive impact on a student’s motivation at high school. The proposed consolidated model draws heavily on the SDT and emphasises the importance of all three psychological needs; autonomy, competence and relatedness, and the key roles of feedback, goal setting and self-efficacy. In essence, students need to be at the centre of their learning, deciding what they do and how they do it, with teachers, parents and peers actively facilitating the process by providing guidance, structure and encouragement.

This chapter has three caveats.

  1. The chapter focused on the learning environment and how proposed changes in the environment could benefit students. However, it is important to note that individual differences, such as personality and physical and mental health, are also likely to impact on student motivation at school.
  2. The chapter suggested practical strategies which can easily be implemented. However, there are more complex issues associated with school systems, such as the use of standardised tests to determine university entrance, which also impact on student motivation at school (Ryan & Deci, 2016) and which were not addressed in this chapter.
  3. Whilst the suggested strategies could potentially apply to students of any age, they are based on research which has predominantly been undertaken with teenagers. These strategies are particularly important for teenagers because they are dealing with a lot of other challenges at this time of life (as discussed in the Overview).

Future research should focus on increasing the scope of studies. Most of the research on education and the SDT has focused on autonomy, at the expense of the other two psychological needs; competence and relatedness. These other two needs are particularly important in high school education. Future research should focus on these other needs and integrate learning theories to provide a more synthesised approach. One particular area that appears promising is the value of peers, particularly peer relationships (Guay et al., 2008) and peer review and feedback (Hsia, Huang, & Hwang, 2016).

See also edit

References edit

Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28, 117-148.

Caprara, G. V., Fida, R., Vecchione, M., Del Bove, G., Vecchio, G. M., Barbaranelli, C., & Bandura, A. (2008). Longitudinal analysis of the role of perceived self-efficacy for self-regulated learning in academic continuance and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, 525-534.

Cham, H., Hughes, J. N., West, S. G., & Im, M. H. (2014). Assessment of adolescents’ motivation for educational attainment. Psychological Assessment, 26, 642-659.

Chang, R., Fukuda, E., Durham, J., & Little, T. D. (2017). Enhancing students' motivation with autonomy-supportive classrooms. In M. L. Wehmeyer, K. A. Shogren, T. D. Little, S. J. Lopez, M. L. Wehmeyer, K. A. Shogren, T. D. Little, & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Development of self-determination through the life-course. (pp. 99-110). New York, NY, US: Springer Science + Business Media.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26, 325-346.

Early, D. M., Berg, J. K., Alicea, S., Si, Y., Aber, J. L., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2016). The impact of Every Classroom, Every Day on high school student achievement: Results from a school-randomized trial. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 9, 3-29.

Eccles, J., Midgley, C., Wigfield, A., Buchanan, C., Reuman, D., Flanagan, C., & Mac Iver, D. (1993). Development During Adolescence: The Impact of Stage-Environment Fit on Young Adolescents' Experiences in Schools and in Families (Vol. 48).

Gillet, N., Vallerand, R., & Lafrenière, M.-A. (2012). Intrinsic and extrinsic school motivation as a function of age: the mediating role of autonomy support. Social Psychology of Education, 15, 77-95.

Guay, F., Ratelle, C., & Chanal, J. (2008). Optimal learning in optimal contexts: The role of self-determination in Education. Canadian Psychology, 49, 233-240.

Hock, M. F., Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (2011). Enhancing student motivation through the pursuit of possible selves. Journal of Education Research, 5, 197-213.

Hsia, L. H., Huang, I., & Hwang, G. J. (2016). A web-based peer-assessment approach to improving junior high school students' performance, self-efficacy and motivation in performing arts courses. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47, 618-632.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705-717.

Luna, B., Paulsen, D. J., Padmanabhan, A., & Geier, C. (2013). The teenage brain: Cognitive control and motivation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 94-100.

Maehr, M., & Midgley, C. (1991). Enhancing student motivation: A school wide approach. Educational Psychologist, 26, 399-427.

Mansfield, C. (2010). Motivating adolescents: Goals for Australian students in secondary schools. Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology, 10, 44-55.

Mansfield, C., & Wosnitza, M. (2010). Motivational goals during adolescence: A cross sectional perspective. Issues in Educational Research, 20, 149-165.

Multon, K., Brown, S., & Lent, R. (1991). Relation of self-efficacy beliefs to academic outcomes: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 30-38.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2016). Facilitating and hindering motivation, learning, and well-being in schools: Research and observations from self-determination theory. In K. R. W. D. B. Miele (Ed.), Handbook of motivation at school (2nd ed., pp. 96-119). New York, NY: Routledge.

Schuitema, J., Peetsma, T., & van der Veen, I. (2014). Enhancing student motivation: A longitudinal intervention study based on future time perspective theory. Journal of Educational Research, 107, 467-481.

Sheldon, K. M., & Filak, V. (2008). Manipulating autonomy, competence, and relatedness support in a game-learning context: New evidence that all three needs matter. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47, 267-283.

Smit, K., de Brabander, C. J., & Martens, R. L. (2014). Student-centred and teacher-centred learning environment in pre-vocational secondary education: Psychological needs, and motivation. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 58, 695-712.

Sparks, C., Dimmock, J., Lonsdale, C., & Jackson, B. (2016). Modeling indicators and outcomes of students’ perceived teacher relatedness support in high school physical education. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 26, 71-82.

Travers, C. J., Morisano, D., & Locke, E. A. (2015). Self-reflection, growth goals, and academic outcomes: A qualitative study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 224-241.

Van den Berghe, L., Vansteenkiste, M., Cardon, G., Kirk, D., & Haerens, L. (2014). Research on self-determination in physical education: Key findings and proposals for future research. Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy, 19, 97-121.

External links edit