What motivates students to learn? One of the most comprehensive theories of motivation, Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory, describes a continuum for the sources of motivation, ranging from factors that are completely internal - intrinsic motivation - to factors that are completely external - extrinsic motivation.1 Students who experience intrinsic motivation will work on a task because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, while those driven by extrinsic motivation act in response to external pressures in order to achieve or avoid a certain outcome. In the “middle ground,” students who are motivated by approval from others or themselves display introjected regulation, a type of motivation that is somewhat external. Students may also show somewhat more internal orientations, including identified regulation, in which they value an activity and view it as personally relevant to achieving their goals.

How can educators encourage students to be intrinsically motivated? Ryan and Deci suggest that students move toward more intrinsic motivation when three basic needs are met: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.2 Autonomy involves feeling a sense of ownership. When students feel autonomy, they perceive themselves as having some control over their own learning. Competence refers to a confidence in ability. Students who feel competent believe that they are capable of doing the work at hand. Finally, relatedness involves feeling socially connected. An effective way to meet these three needs is to engage students in student-centered learning in which they drive their own learning and actively construct their understanding through collaborative inquiry.

St. George’s School


What supports students to be motivated, self-directed learners? To address this question, RSI collaborated with a group of teachers at St. George’s School to carry out a mixed methods study on motivation. Students from grades 9-12 completed an online survey designed to explore factors that contribute to motivation.


Consistent with previous research, we found that students are most internally motivated when they:

  • have autonomy to make choices in their learning,
  • feel socially connected to classmates and teachers, and
  • are interested in their work.

Students at the school report that when they are given choice they "are more interested in the work and work harder." In addition, students report being more intrinsically motivated when teachers encourage feelings of social connectedness. As one student expresses, "[It’s motivating when] teachers connect on a much more sociable level and allow the student to feel like they are on the same team, or they are working cooperatively." Finally, students report being more intrinsically motivated when they are interested in a subject. When discussing a subject that they are especially interested in, students most often report that they are motivated by "doing my best," "personal growth," and "interest in the subject," all of which exhibit intrinsic motivation. By contrast, when discussing a subject that they are least interested in, students most often report that they are motivated by "grades" and "a desire to please my parents and/or teachers," which reveals extrinsic motivation.

To read more about this work, check out this Harvard Graduate School of Education's Usable Knowledge article


Mid-Pacific Institute


RSI partnered with Mid-Pacific Institute to conduct a study exploring motivation, mindset, and happiness among elementary, middle, and high school students. All participating students completed an online survey measuring motivation, mindset, happiness.

Results from this study reveal interesting relationships between motivation, mindset, and happiness. Specifically, we found that happiness is associated with higher levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and having a growth mindset is associated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation and lower levels of extrinsic motivation.

In addition, we found that the following practices are associated with greater intrinsic motivation:

  • giving students the freedom to choose the topic or medium of their work
  • connecting learning to the real world, and
  • providing students with opportunities to collaborate with others.


Bedales School

Motivation, Independence, and Love of Learning

RSI carried out a mixed methods study at Bedales School to explore student motivation. Students at the school completed an online survey designed to measure motivation, independence, and passion for learning. The survey also assessed the prevalence of teaching practices that academic research shows support motivation. 

The vast majority of students at Bedales report being "a good amount" or "very" motivated in academic courses. In addition, students at Bedales describe how the school culture supports them to be independent learners. Further, Bedales students tend to report having a genuine love of learning and describe a school culture that inspires curiosity.

Results also reveal that teachers at Bedales often practice pedagogical techniques that research suggests support motivation, self-determination, interest, and passion, notably:

  • connecting academic learning to real life,
  • providing challenge with appropriate scaffolding, and
  • encouraging independent learning.


Wellington College


Whether you are a cadet at West Point Military Academy or a sixth grader at a spelling bee, grit may be the quality that best predicts your success. Angela Duckworth and colleagues define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit predicts academic success across a range of outcomes, including grades, competitions, and awards.3 How do gritty students sustain effort over time? RSI partnered with Wellington Learning and Research Centre to explore this question with students in years 7-13 at Wellington College.

Consistent with previous academic research, results suggest that gritty students tend to show more metacognitive awareness,4 growth-minded thinking about abilities,5 and self-compassion.6

To read more about this study, check out this BBC article about our study!


Phillips Exeter Academy


Phillips Exeter Academy uses a dialogic teaching and learning method called Harkness that supports students to be motivated, self-directed learners. RSI carried out a mixed methods study to explore and identify the key components of this student-directed learning method. RSI researchers collected data from students in grades 9-12 at Exeter using online surveys and classroom observations over the course of one academic year.

This research identifies eight key components of Harkness learning and teaching:

  • learning is student-directed,
  • learning is discussion-based,
  • learning is democratic,
  • teachers act as facilitators,
  • students act as teachers,
  • students engage in collaborative inquiry,
  • students actively listen to one another, and
  • students come to class prepared with the necessary materials and knowledge.

In addition, results indicate that students at Exeter tend to demonstrate high levels of motivation and take responsibility for their own learning. Students are motivated to participate in Harkness discussions and learn from one other. Many students note that Harkness discussions enable them to construct a greater understanding of material together with their classmates than they could have on their own.

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Colegio Rio Branco

Student-Centered Learning

Research has shown that when learning is more student-centered, students are more motivated. RSI partnered with Colegio Rio Branco to explore student-centered learning and teaching in math classrooms in grades 5-12.

This study reveals several ways educators can make learning activities student-centered, including:  

  • ask students questions that do not have a clear right answer to help students construct their own understanding of the material,

  • teach students metacognitive strategies to help them better understand and take responsibility for their own learning processes,

  • assign projects using real-world problems so students see that their learning is relevant and valuable, and

  • consider flexible methods of assessment such as portfolios, which can capture and reward student work in more nuanced ways than traditional testing.



Active Learning, motivation, and memory

RSI partnered with Sydney Church of England Grammar School’s (Shore) to explore how teachers in years 1-6 can support students' motivation and memory of academic material.

Results from this study suggest that engaging students in active learning is a powerful way to boost their motivation to learn academic content. Moreover, using active learning techniques engages students in learning the material in deeper and more meaningful ways, thereby improving their memory of it. Below are a few ways educators can provide students with active learning opportunities in the classroom:

  • offer students choice,
  • allow students to set their own goals,
  • provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning,
  • encourage students to learn independently,
  • construct knowledge through collaboration with the teacher or students,
  • encourage students to ask questions,
  • provide opportunities for student input, and
  • connect learning to the real world.


  1. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

  2. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54–67.

  3. Duckworth, A. L., Kirby, T. a., Tsukayama, E., Berstein, H., & Ericsson, K. a. (2011). Deliberate practice spells success: why grittier competitors triumph at the national spelling bee. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(2), 174–181; Ivcevic, Z., & Brackett, M. (2014). Predicting school success: Comparing conscientiousness, grit, and emotion regulation ability. Journal of Research in Personality, 52, 29-36.

  4. Arslan, S., Akin, A., & Citemel, N. (2013). The Predictive Role of Grit on Metacognition in Turkish University Students. Studia Psychologica, 55(4), 311–320; Wolters, C. A., & Hussain, M. (2014). Investigating grit and its relations with college students’ self-regulated learning and academic achievement. Metacognition and Learning.

  5. Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33.

  6. Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y.P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity, 4(3), 263–287; Neff, K. D., Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(4), 908–916.