The classic scene from a sports movie occurs in the locker room at half time when the coach delivers a rousing speech to motivate the players to win. Beneath this cliché lies a basic truth — that in sports, the desire of the players to do their best is as essential to the outcome as their training and preparation.

In education, students’ motivation to learn is also essential, but it hasn’t received the attention it deserves. For years, efforts to improve K-12 schools have focused on developing more rigorous academic standards, testing students, holding teachers and administrators accountable for students’ test results, and creating new charter schools. Advocates of these changes no doubt hope they will spur students to work harder and raise their test scores.

But research on what motivates students and how to increase that motivation has been limited, as have experiments with different approaches to engaging students in school. So we’ve been creating an infrastructure of school reform without addressing directly and comprehensively an essential element needed to make it work — students’ desire to learn more.

The Center on Education Policy, which I used to head, did a six-month review of major research on student motivation by scholars, practitioners, and others. The goal was to learn more about the nature of student motivation and the policies and practices that can help foster it. Findings from this review are described in a summary report, Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform by Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober, and in six background papers.

As the report makes clear, sparking students’ desire to achieve requires much more than simply demanding higher test scores. Research suggests, for example, that students are more motivated to do a task when it taps into at least one of four key factors: when students feel they can complete the task, when they have some sense of control and autonomy over the task, when they’re interested in the task or see its value, and when doing the task makes them feel more related to a peer group or someone they admire.

The CEP papers also look at particular topics, such as whether cash and other rewards can spur students to work harder, whether the goal of going to college is a sufficient motivator, which kinds of tests are more or less motivating to students, and how family factors affect children’s motivation. For example, programs that reward good performance can be more or less motivating depending on how the rewards and process are structured; poorly designed rewards programs can dampen motivation.

The CEP report and papers include research-based suggestions for actions that schools, teachers, parents, and communities can take to help nurture students’ desire to learn, while recognizing that there’s no single strategy that motivates all students.

Like winning at football or learning to play the piano, doing well in school requires motivation in addition to preparation and training. The information on student motivation amassed by CEP, now housed at George Washington University, offers a good springboard for an overdue national focus on this fundamental issue.


This blog written by Jack Jennings first appeared on June 5, 2012 in the Huffington Post.