How to Motivate Students to Learn – Research from Psychology and Neuro – Science

How to Motivate Students to Learn

For the past 20 years I have been intrigued about resilience and mental toughness. What makes some people, despite lack of resources, strive and overcome set backs and challenges? And why is it that other people (some with many resources) “crumble” and quit at the slightest hint of difficulty and challenge?

If we are wondering about what we could do to motivate a love of learning in our children, it is useful to consider two questions:

1) What motivates you? Think of a time when despite the difficulties you still continued and achieved your goal.

2) What motivates your student / child?

I think these questions are useful because the similarities in the answers to the questions hint to what motivates us and our children and what causes us and our children to at times lose hope, quit or not fulfil our potential.

I’ll focus my language at this point toward motivating students. However, I believe there are many commonalities between adults and children when it comes to motivation.


Identity Beliefs

How we define ourselves tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Zig Ziglar says, “You cannot perform in a manner which is inconsistent with how you see yourself.”

And Robert Cialdini says, “The strongest need in the human personality is to remain consistent with how we have defined ourselves.”


This is illustrated in the diagram below.







Our beliefs determine our understanding of our potential. This potential determines whether we dare to take action. By taking action we get results and by interpreting these results we form our beliefs.

Carol S. Dweck (“Mindset – The New Psychology of Success”.) discovered in over 35 years of research that there are two predominant identity beliefs.

Fixed and Growth Mindset

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually “all-great” people have had these qualities.

In summary, students with a fixed mindset focused more on looking smart than learning, more on the result / grade than the effort required to achieve a good grade and as a consequence, chose easier tasks that demonstrate that they are smart. This protects how they have defined themselves, smart, brilliant or gifted.

Students with a growth mindset have a different focus. While grades are important what is more important is that they worked hard, put in the effort. They felt that improvement was important and realized that the most brilliant scientists or athletes worked hard to achieve their success. Students with a growth mindset understood that Einstein and Michael Jordan were not born brilliant they had to develop their gifts.

Impact of Praise on Mindset & Motivation to Learn

It goes without saying that our students need good self-esteem. However, the view in the past 30 years has been that to build a sense of self-worth we should tell our children how smart and intelligent they are.

Dweck and her team document a study of children who were given a set of problems from a non verbal IQ test. Afterwards children were randomly assigned to receive one kind of praise. Some received intelligence praise, “Wow, that’s a really good score, you must be really good at this.” Others received effort, process, progress or concentration feedback, “you must of tried hard.” The study was conducted over 6 times as results were so dramatic:

  • Those who received the intelligence praise were now endorsing the fixed mindset
  • Those given effort praise believed this is something they can develop through effort
  • Afterwards the groups were asked what type of task would they like to work on next
  • Presented with a challenging task where they could learn but also make mistakes – 90% of growth mindset students decided to take this task
  • The alternative was to take an easy task so you won’t make mistakes – fixed mindset students overwhelmingly took this option
  • The fixed mindset students wanted to preserve the label – smart
  • Their motivation to learn was dampened.

What does this mean?

  • When we praise students’ intelligence we send the message that this is the most important thing
  • Their sense of self / worth is intertwined with their performance
  • A big task as educators is to build student confidence
  • Within the fixed mindset confidence is very fragile
  • If a fixed mindset student has to exert effort – confidence in their ability goes down
  • Also if they have a set back confidence in their ability goes down
  • Confronted with challenging tasks they haven’t learned – confidence also goes down
  • Within the growth mindset these are not threatened they are welcomed
  • Opportunities to learn are part of the learning process.

What we now know is that students build a stronger sense of self, a stronger self-esteem when they experience success, rather than be told they are successful or good at it. Evidence based on their own experience is much more powerful than words – particularly if the student does not believe the words are true for them.

A new definition of success needs to be born! Rather than the focus being on grades and individual results (future based), the focus needs to be on effort and improvement (present based and in the individuals control). To decide to be our best, give our best, regardless of the difficulty or challenge is what separates resilient and determined people from those who quit when the going gets tough.

Neuroplasticity Research

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This is exciting research that shows our brain is a dynamic system that has the capability of significant growth. The idea that our IQ measures our intelligence and that it is set throughout the life span no longer holds credibility.

As a result of this new research along with studies in the Psychology of Peak Performance we now understand what creates great performance – and natural ability has little to do with it!

Students love to hear that their brain is like a muscle and the more they practice the more the brain forms new connections every time they work hard and learn. They love the idea of a growing brain being in their hands. One student was relieved when he said, “you mean I don’t have to be dumb anymore”. What a liberating message! This young boy had created a new “identity belief” and teachers noticed changes in motivation to learn and higher grades for all students who understood this.

We can teach our children that the correct answer is important but what is more important is how the brain worked (and exercised) in arriving at the correct answer.

Would it be too radical to say that an incorrect answer is better if thought about than a correct answer to an easy problem that didn’t require effort to achieve?

The outcome from this new research applied has been:

  • More resilient children
  • Children who love to learn and solve problems
  • Students who are more motivated to learn
  • Children who know the value of hard work, effort and celebrate improvement.

We can teach our children this growth mindset message and help form them into happy, resilient, determined adults who strive to be their best and do their best.


Rocky Biasi is a counsellor and educational consultant. He offers teacher professional development training and runs student well-being sessions. For more information and to contact Rocky CLICK HERE

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