Improving School Performance through the Psychology of Motivation

“He’s such a smart kid! I don’t know why he isn’t getting better grades. I know that he could do great in school if he worked at it.”

It’s a common sentiment among parents: children and teenagers who are otherwise very bright and talented, yet are consistently getting a B or C (or even D) average in classes. Maybe the student works hard at their hobbies after school, or maybe they excel in one-on-one music lessons. But for some reason, their grades just don’t reflect the intelligence that the parents see.

In many cases, this problem could be caused by lack of motivation. Motivation is defined as any internal process that leads us to do or say something. It may sound harsh to say that poor student behavior results from lack of motivation, but consider that a lack of motivation could also simply mean a misdirection of motivation.

A student could be highly motivated to succeed, just maybe not on class assignments. Maybe ‘success’ in the student’s mind means a strong social group or meeting personal goals in hobbies. There are many forces that determine where we direct our motivation. Understanding the forces could help parents understand why their child is focused on something other than school work.

Factors Influencing Motivation

101207297Motivation as a mental process does not happen in a vacuum. External forces from our environment have a large impact on our motivation, which is further shaped by internal forces. The external forces are biological and social, followed by emotional and cognitive internal forces. These forces require us to mentally process them and form a reaction. Often, we determine our actions by combining reactions to multiple forces.

External forces are easy to understand, and biological forces are the most simple. You’re hungry, so you get a bite to eat. You have an itch, you scratch it. Social forces are nearly as simple, and are based on social expectations and peer pressure. For instance, a student could genuinely enjoy doing his science homework, but his basketball teammates expect him to go to a fast food restaurant after practice every night. He doesn’t want to lose face with his closest friends, and he certainly doesn’t want to miss out on the jokes and stories shared on any given night, so he goes. By the time he gets home, he can barely stay awake, let alone give his homework his full attention.

While external forces are easy to understand, internal forces are much less predictable. Emotions can impact motivation by shaping our actions around what we feel good about doing. This can mean doing what we get pleasure from doing, but on a deeper level, it can also motivate us to follow a passion when everyone in our social circle tells us it would be a mistake. Cognitive processing is the act of reasoning to yourself what you think would be the benefits and detriments of a certain action versus another. This usually works out in a positive way (we tend to look for smart choices), but if the cognitive process is based on false information, the motivation can end up pushing in the wrong direction.

To make things even more difficult, people react to multiple different forces when deciding on an action. This is why it can be difficult to pick a direction at life’s major crossroads: we have to weigh the benefits of one form of processing with the benefits of another. This job offer pays better, so I could pay the car off early and finally start saving for the kids’ college (cognitive), but I would really like to  leave the corporate world altogether and start my own business, to finally start playing by my own rules instead of playing the part of a middle man (emotional).

It’s important to realize that everyone struggles with such decisions, no matter what stage in life they are at. Now just imagine how difficult it must be for school children! Often, their social forces are much stronger than social forces experienced by adults, and their cognitive processes are not fully developed. This makes motivation seem very complex and difficult to maneuver.

However, we can also look at motivation from a simple perspective of rewards, which makes it very easy to redirect.

Incentives and Drives, and What They Mean for Students

All four mental processes of motivation can be reduced to instincts. Most actions have some incentive that we can gain or some drive that we can reduce, and it is instinctive for us to seek to reduce these drives and strive for these incentives. For instance, the high school athlete who believes that skillful performance during their senior year will earn them fame, popularity, and a college scholarship (incentives) has a strong motivation to work on their athletic skills.

A similar argument can be used to explain why many children and teenagers enjoy video games. The constant feedback and easy-to-accomplish achievements can feel very rewarding. These gamers are very motivated to succeed, and they find that video games allow them to achieve a lot in a short amount of time. In some cases these accomplishments may provide a better ability to achieve incentives than the slower moving accomplishments of schoolwork and the difficulty of achieving social success.

Fortunately, the field of psychology has a lot to tell us about programming motivation, using these incentives and drives in a positive way. Let’s take a look at what we know from the science.

How to Improve and Refocus Motivation

A simple google search will result in millions of pages on how to improve motivation. They tend to claim that small, achievable goals and routines will improve motivation. But these tricks really only improve your actions or productivity. Setting short goals in studying (e.g. read 20 pages before bedtime; review notes twice during study hall) may provide more structure to learning, but it does not change the underlying motivation. If the student is motivated to do something else, such as go to a friend’s house, then all those tricks will only get them so far. Eventually, they will tire of the forced ‘habit’ of common motivation tricks. What is truly helpful is to intrinsically change the desire, thus changing the underlying motivation (or at least adding a powerful new motivation).

The best way to overcome misdirected motivation is to adjust the incentives. Take a good look at what actions you desire in your child’s school performance and what actions you’re really rewarding. It may be surprising, but we rarely actually reward the behaviors that we desire. If you are able to discover your child’s true motivation, you can make that motivation a reward (incentive) of the action that you desire.

99403879If the student doesn’t feel a need to work on schoolwork and prefers to spend time with friends, make socialization the reward for schoolwork. For example, if they earn an A on their next test, treat them to a party for them and their friends. If the student has more motivation to play video games than to focus on school, consider buying them new games only when they earn A’s for final scores in classes and allowing them to play video games only after you’ve checked their homework at night (for completion and accuracy).

When using rewards to encourage a more school-focused motivation, be careful to avoid focusing on negative reinforcement (e.g. grounding them from their phone or video games until their grades improve). This form of feedback tends to make teenagers resentful, and they may refuse to put extra effort into schoolwork simply out of spite, believing that they are being denied a basic human right.


Motivation is a powerful force in how we determine actions, and it is influenced by many forces. However, at the core of motivation lies simple instinctive action, either to gain incentives or to reduce drives. By discovering the source of your child’s motivation, you can develop a rewards structure, giving them incentives for doing well in school.

Make sure that you are not accidentally rewarding undesired behaviors, and make sure that your system is based on rewards, not punishments. Rewards are known to be much more effective in shaping behavior than punishments, and punishing undesired behaviors may backfire, leading the child to become spiteful and refuse to play along.

Further Reading:

Debunking False but Stubborn Beliefs

Understanding the Motivation of Video Game Addicts


Guest Author Matthew Rottmann is a tutor for General Academic and a student of Psychology and Business. He has a passion using Psychology to make school and work more productive and enjoyable for people, and is working towards a career in business consulting.