The Science of Motivation

Student engagement is the #1 challenge in education.

(according to a survey of over 500 public school and district staff members—including teachers, principals, superintendents, and others—from across the U.S. asking what their “highest priority challenge” was)

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And they're right.

Kids have had it.

We place a lot of pressure on teachers to entertain.


Have you ever been at a party that was objectively entertaining but you just weren’t in a partying mood, so you didn’t have a good time?

Now imagine you were forced to go, by law, every day, and instead of a party, it was work, but the output wasn’t actually used by anyone.

Oh, and you don’t get paid for this work no one needs, but you are judged harshly on your performance. In fact, it’s the most important thing about your life -- is how well you perform this work that then gets thrown in the trash.

It basically doesn’t matter how entertaining you can make the party. 

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The good news and the bad news is that motivation comes from within.


  • "Boredom accounts for nearly a third of variation in student achievement."

  • "A 2010 German study found that boredom “instigates a desire to escape from the situation” that causes boredom."

  • "A 2014 study at the University of Munich found a cycle in which boredom bore lower test results, which bore higher levels of boredom, which bore still lower test results." [No pun intended]

  • "A 2003 Columbia University survey found that U.S. teenagers who said they were often bored were more than 50 percent more likely than not-bored teens to smoke, drink, and use illegal drugs."

How School Kills Motivation

According to Self Determination Theory,
there are
three elements that can make or break motivation:



For logistical purposes, schools typically do not let each student choose what they work on at any given time. In general, school limits the effect students can have on their situation.



School is all about working on your weaknesses, rather than leaning into your strengths, so the unfortunate side effect is a distinct lack of a feeling of mastery. You can’t only go to the classes you’re good at, which is essentially what adults do.



School can provide a feeling of belonging. However,

1) it is not done intentionally which means that for many it can also have the opposite effect.


2) it’s  not interwoven with learning (it's literally extra-curricular), so it does not serve as a motivation for learning (other than, "finish your work so you can go play").

30% of public high school students in the U.S. fail to graduate.

Yet 88% of dropouts had passing grades.

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  • 69% said they were not motivated or inspired.

  • 66% said they would have worked harder if their school had demanded more.

    • yet 51% place the blame "largely" or "mostly" on themselves, not their school.

  • 70% were "somewhat" or "very" confident they could have graduated if they had tried.

    • only 7% were "not at all confident".

It's possible to design learning experiences to be engaging, but due to the inherent variation among students, it is not possible to prevent a large subset from becoming bored or frustrated at any given time.


The key is to empower students to make their own meaning.

"He who knows why to [learn] can bear almost any how."