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Mountains in Fog


Pupils tend to enjoy learning and do better when they are more intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated to achieve. Therefore, you should help pupils journey from needing extrinsic motivation to being motivated to work intrinsically.

ECF strands: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, 4p, 7.7, 7b, 7k,7m, 7n, 7o, 8h, 8n, 8o

What determines motivation?

Pupils’ intrinsic motivation is complex as it is influenced by a multitude of factors such as:

  • Their prior experiences, for example, within a given subject, or with a given teacher

  • Their perception of success and failure – whether they view failure as a part of learning and whether they believe their capabilities are fixed or under their control

As a result, a pupil’s level of motivation can change depending on the circumstance and context of the situation they are in. For example, a pupil may be very motivated to work hard in their maths lesson but not in their PE lesson. Or maybe a pupil used to be motivated in their maths lessons in year 2, but in year 3 they are not.

As motivation is so malleable, you can influence it.

Motivation is determined by pupils’ experiences of certain situations or environments. Therefore, to boost pupils’ motivation, it is more effective to change their experiences and environment rather than to try and reason with them. You can do this by:

  • Providing opportunities for pupils to experience meaningful success

  • Creating a positive learning environment where it’s safe to make mistakes

  • Generating buy-in by linking success in school to pupils’ long-term goals

How do you create opportunities for success?

As a teacher, you can influence your pupils’ resilience and beliefs about their ability to succeed, by ensuring all pupils can experience meaningful success. Success drives motivation. You are much more likely to want to engage in activity if you have previously experienced success with it as opposed to failure. Therefore, you can motivate pupils by helping them to experience success when learning. However, there is a careful balance to strike when doing this. If a problem or activity is too tricky or too easy, pupils are unlikely to get the same sense of achievement (Willingham, 2009). Therefore, it is important that you strive to set your pupils challenging but achievable tasks. However, making tasks achievable can be tricky. The curriculum consists of a great deal of challenging content that pupils might find difficult to master, but it isn’t always possible or beneficial to pupils to overly simplify this content. Instead, to support pupils to achieve meaningful success, Willingham (2009) suggests you can help to make the thinking easier.

There are multiple ways you can do this including ensuring pupils have enough thinking time to respond to questions or discussions and are provided with the opportunity to gather and collate their thoughts before sharing them with the class. 

When asking pupils a challenging question or asking them to engage in a classroom discussion, tell them to write down their answer or thoughts before asking them to share this with the class. For younger pupils, asking them to spend some time thinking about their answer and then using talk partners works in the same way and has the same benefits for a class discussion.

This has three main benefits:

  1. This will ensure that every pupil has a prepared answer to your question providing all pupils the opportunity to achieve success.

  2. It increases the time that pupils have to process and think about the question and therefore will increase the depth of the answer.

  3. You can circulate the classroom as pupils are writing their answers or discussing it with their partner and select a pupil that has a good answer to share and/or pick up on any misconceptions as part of the discussion.

To increase pupils’ success, you may want to display or model using a writing or speaking frame as this will help to increase the focus and rigour of pupils’ written ideas or dialogue.

Just as feelings of success can lead to motivation, feelings of failure can lead to demotivation. This could be problematic because when learning new concepts, there are likely to be times when pupils misunderstand something and make errors, in fact this is often a critical part of learning. If pupils don’t recognise this as an important part of learning, and instead see this as failure, then it is likely to demotivate them from further engagement.

Creating a positive learning environment where pupils feel safe to make mistakes and recognise this as an important part of learning is likely to increase their motivation to learn.

There are a number of ways you can do this:

  • Tell pupils that mistakes and misconceptions are a part of learning

  • Praise pupils for their effort and progress rather than whether they are correct or not

  • Where pupils have made public mistakes or errors, thank them for their answer and for allowing you use their answer as a learning point for the class

Creating a positive learning environment where it’s safe to make mistakes will take time, particularly where pupils’ academic confidence is low. Where this is the case, it is important to regularly reflect on the language you are using with pupils and that you ensure you are planning regular opportunities for them to be meaningfully successful.

How can you encourage students to buy in to the process?

People are intrinsically motivated when they have autonomy over what they do and are given meaningful choices about what they engage with. However, in the classroom setting, it is difficult to present pupils with choice over what they learn or how. This is because they are novices, and are therefore perhaps not best placed to make those decisions. As a result, in order to develop buy-in from your pupils, it’s important that you explain to them why they are engaging in certain tasks and activities and help them see how their success in school is related to achieving their long-term goals.

One way to do this is to show pupils the journey of their learning and how different topics and subjects will build upon each other, throughout the year and their school journey. Some schools use curriculum maps to do this. Another way is to ask pupils, ‘Why do you want to be successful?’ and ask them to record this on a piece of paper or a post-it note. This can be used on a display and constantly referred to throughout the term or year.

By providing pupils with opportunities to articulate their long-term goals and linking this to their success in school, you help to develop their intrinsic motivation to succeed.

Of course, it is also important that you support pupils to achieve these, for example, by helping them to master challenging content which builds towards their long-term goals.


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  • How do you support pupils to feel successful in the classroom?

  • Do you give all pupils the opportunity to experience meaningful success and how could you improve this?

  • How do you respond to pupils who make an error?

  • What impact does this have on the pupils and the rest of the class?

  • How comfortable do you think your pupils are at making mistakes?

  • How can you make them feel more comfortable?

  • How do you generate pupil buy-in and is this effective? Why/why not?

  • What more could you do?

Further Reading

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