Skip to main content
BlogResearch Insights

Motivation, Feedback and Achievement: Exploring recent headlines

By May 28, 2009June 16th, 20163 Comments

Practice makes perfect – so why are so many middle school students more intent on honing their video game reflexes this summer than their math skills? Research suggests that academic motivation tends to decline in American schools as students reach middle school – a quandary for educators, given the links between intrinsic motivation, practice, and achievement (for a practical take on this subject, see David Brooks’ recent New York Times op-ed, “Genius: The Modern View”). Teaching students to delay gratification is critical to this effort – making the development of self-regulation a hot topic in early education. While educators have struggled to determine whether or not instructional strategies can successfully teach children to internalize intrinsic motivation prior to middle school, evidence suggests that focusing on effort rather than ability (‘you’re working hard’ vs. ‘you’re good at this’) is an especially beneficial practice. Other voices have called for parents and educators to explicitly teach children about the malleability of intelligence and the relationship between practice and achievement.

These are complicated issues. As we are all aware, motivation varies by context, culture, and personal predilection: a student intrinsically motivated to finish a Harry Potter novel may simultaneously rely on extrinsic motivation (conveniently enhanced by threat of a pop quiz) to finish Wuthering Heights. Unfortunately, extrinsic motivators (grades, social pressure) begin to break down in middle school, making the development of internal drive all the more valuable. Think this might be an interesting topic for light summer reading? Richard Nisbett’s new book, Intelligence and How to Get It, offers a thought-provoking discussion of the sources of individual variation in student motivation.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Charles White says:

    The information in this article is right on point and I think one area they need to focus on is parental involvement. If parent would show more interest in their children education then this could possibly motivate middle school students to put more effort in their studies.

  • Nicole Cook says:

    I found this topic to be of great interest to me, both as a former middle school teacher and as a parent of elementary aged children. This is one of our most challenging and important tasks as teachers. I believe that the key to motiviation relies on relationships and relevance. As a teacher, it is part of our charge to try to motivate students and to encourage them to be self-motivated. That happens many times through buidling relationships with the students and then making the task at hand relevant to their world. I found these reading very interesting — helping children develop discipline is not an easy task but it is a necessary task to tackle. As a theatre teacher, many times I told students that it isn’t the one with the most talent that succeeds but it is the one with the most drive and dedication.

  • Vicky Robinson says:

    This article was interesting to me, because I teach fourth grade students. At my school, fourth grade is the year before middle school. It is true that many students begin to lose motivation as they approach middle school. I agree that this is because most students are motivated by a desire for grades or rewards, or by a desire to avoid punishments. They are not motivated by a true desire to learn. When they begin to lose interest in the external rewards or punishments, they also begin to lose their motivation to do well.
    I like this article’s suggestion that students need to be taught that their achievement is connected to their practice and effort. I think one way we can teach students this is to avoid comparing students with each other. My students often make comparisons, such as “So and so is the smartest student in the class.” I always try to redirect their thinking when they say this by responding, “No, he (or she) just works really hard,” or by pointing out that all people are smart in different ways.
    For one of my graduate classes I started doing some research into student motivation, and stumbled onto internal control psychology. I have only just begun to read about it, but I find it really fascinating. The idea is that people cannot really be externally motivated; all people make choices based on internal motivations (Sullo, 2007). What they are motivated to do influences their behaviors. According to internal control psychology, people’s motivation comes from their desire to satisfy the needs of fun, freedom, power, and belonging (Sullow, 2007) Teachers should structure their classrooms so that students can meet these needs while doing what the teacher wants (Sullo, 2007). Students need choices, and they need to understand the internal rewards that come with hard work and learning in order to be intrinsically motivated (Sullo, 2007). I am wondering if anyone else has heard of this theory and/or has any ideas about how to implement it in the classroom to increase students’ intrinsic motivation. I am very curious about this theory, and would like to learn more.
    Sullo, B. (2007). Activating the desire to learn. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervisionand Curriculum Development.

Leave a Reply