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Motivation to Study: Where does it come from?

Students want to learn, but some don’t want to study. Why? Researchers have identified four dimensions to student motivation, and an aversion to studying means a student’s needs aren’t being met. Check out the four dimensions to student motivation and tips for encouraging your learner.

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They say it takes a village to raise a child, but somehow, not you nor any villager can get your child to study. We can all remember being a student, and at some time or another, avoiding studying at all costs. If we’re wise, we can also remember wishing that we wanted to study. So how do we encourage our students to crack open the books?

In the education research community, the consensus is that student motivation is contingent on four major dimensions. According to the Center on Education Policy Graduate School of Education and Human Development, “at least one of these dimensions must be satisfied for a student to be motivated.” Moreover, the more dimensions satisfied, and the more thoroughly they are, the more motivated the student will be. Below are the four dimensions, along with their scholarly definitions.

  • Competence — The student believes he or she can complete the task.
  • Control/autonomy — The student feels in control by seeing a direct link between his or her actions and an outcome and retains autonomy by having some choice about whether or how to undertake the task.
  • Interest/value — The student has some interest in the task or sees the value of completing it.
  • Relatedness — Completing the task brings the student social rewards, such as a sense of belonging to a classroom or other desired social group or approval from a person of social importance to the student.

So how do we “satisfy” each dimension?


Competence is a rather intuitive dimension to motivation. It’d be counterintuitive to think a student who feels they cannot complete their studies, whether it’d be homework or test prep, will feel motivated. We must foster confidence within our students if we want them to feel capable. There are limitless ways to grow your student’s confidence when working on a given task, but my personal favorite is setting small goals. For instance, you might take a set of twenty-five problems, and turn it into five sets of five problems. Although a small step, the closure and sense of achievement by finishing the first set will bolster their confidence on set two, and so on. Moreover, this division of the work will help combat the stress of the task altogether, which may be what’s stifling their confidence to begin with.

Control / Autonomy

Control— if a student feels in control of their studying habits, they’ll develop responsibility for the outcome. One consequence of being domineering with your student’s study habits is them becoming too externally motivated. Essentially, if you steer them too hard, they won’t feel motivated to study without your cue. Not to mention, external motivations are plentiful. Ideally, you want your student to be a self-starter, and to pursue their studies independently. As for autonomy, try to let your student make some decisions regarding their schoolwork. Something as simple as letting them sequence their homework assignments can inspire their confidence and combat their anxiety. 

Interest / Value

Whether or not your student has interest in certain coursework is sometimes innate. Some students prefer math to science, or English to history, and that’s totally fine. However, the “value” aspect of this dimension can easily be developed. Oftentimes, the “value” of coursework is demonstrated by giving students practical implications. For example, one might tell their student that there is value in doing math homework because if they do, they’ll “get into a good college” or “make a lot of money.” You may want to reconsider this approach though, because these consequences are likely too abstract and distant for young learners to grasp. Further, you’d be enforcing extrinsic motivation as opposed to re-enforcing intrinsic motivation. Instead, point out practical applications, technologies or situations where their curriculum would come in handy. Maybe you could relate science and medicine, or English and art with screen-writing for Netflix shows, the most important part is merely making a connection. With a little practice, your student will start doing it on their own.


The implications of “social rewards” cannot be overlooked. If students see that their peers or family value diligence in their studies, you can expect their motivation to increase. When students do poorly on their exam, or lose credit on a homework assignment, one of their principal fears is what their friends are going to think. Despite how unfortunate this anxiety is, it exemplifies the importance of recognizing schoolwork as social currency. If the relatedness dimension is stifling your student, you’ve got options. For one, you can make your approval or disapproval clear in response to their studying habits but be careful not criticize the outcome (e.g. grades.) Alternatively, help them find a social circle where learning is valued; learning centers like Tip-Top Brain offer a sense of community and value in education.

Navigating these dimensions can be challenging, and you may be wondering where to start. Luckily, the first step is easy: listen to your student. More likely than not, your student is telling you, albeit not directly, why their studying habits are suffering. Once you’ve identified where your student needs support, you’ve reached the hard part. You’ll need to consistently work with them to develop the dimensions of their motivation, or at least until growth becomes habitual. So, how do we further develop these dimensions? What role does your student play in growing their motivation?

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