Education resources › Blog › Student motivation: Does Cognitive Science have the answer?

Student motivation Does Cognitive Science have the answer

Student motivation: Does Cognitive Science have the answer?

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

This blog was written by Dr Claire Badger, Assistant Head, Teaching & Learning at The Godolphin and Latymer School. You can hear Claire speak more about the research on motivation and its intersection with Cognitive Science at the 2023 Festival of Education’s Cognitive Science strand curated by InnerDrive.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have intrinsically motivated students in all our classes? Students who are there because they loved learning for the sake of learning?

However, the reality is rather different – we all know students who are highly motivated to play football with their mates at break time and entirely unmotivated to grapple with Maths problems during period 3. Can Cognitive Science help us to understand these different motivational factors and develop more intrinsically motivated learners?

Why are we highly motivated to learn some things and not others?

In Why don’t students like school, Daniel Willingham writes: “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right we will avoid thinking.”

Learning is hard and our default is not to think hard. However, this conflicts with how we see young children motivated to learn phenomenally hard tasks such as learning to speak, walk and interact with others with little outside influence required. David Geary’s theory of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge help to reconcile this seeming contradiction. Skills such as speaking and walking are biologically primary; humans have evolved over millennia to learn these skills. Whereas skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic are biologically secondary knowledge and require formal instruction.

As John Sweller, the father of Cognitive Load Theory, writes: “Since Geary’s formulation, it has become clear that theories like Cognitive Load Theory apply solely to the biologically secondary knowledge for which schools and other educational institutions were invented.”

Motivation, success, and how to increase both

Motivation as a system of allocating attention

In Willingham’s simplified model of learning, the first stage in learning is paying attention. As Peps Mccrea writes in Motivated Teaching: “What we are motivated towards is what we attend to and what we attend to is what we learn”. This also helps us move away from general conceptions of motivated vs. unmotivated students to thinking about motivation as specific to particular situations which, as teachers, we are much more able to influence.

Boost your students’ motivation with training that introduces them to the seven key habits of successful people.

Self-Determination Theory

Self Determination Theory provides a helpful framework for thinking about motivation beyond the extrinsic and intrinsic dichotomy. It places extrinsic motivation on a sliding scale moving from external regulation to integrated regulation and suggests that teachers’ support of students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness facilitates students’ autonomous self-regulation for learning.


Although motivation increases the likelihood of success, research suggeststhat there is a similar, if not stronger impact of success on motivation. So, rather than focusing our efforts on motivating students through “fun” or “engaging” activities, we should instead ensure that they are successful.

A great place to start is looking at the links between Cognitive Science and Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. We can also reduce extraneous cognitive load, and thus increase success rates, by creating clear routines in our classroom and supporting students to develop good habits.


In the classroom, relatedness is deeply associated with a student feeling that the teacher genuinely likes, respects, and values him or her.” Niemiec and Ryan (2009).

However, students (and teenagers in particular) are far more influenced by their peers than adults and feel the effects of social pain and reward far more strongly. Finding ways to overcome the fear of failure and create psychologically safe classrooms will help build supportive student-student relationships, create positive social norms and a sense of belonging.


Autonomy is often conflated with the idea of free choice, which is problematic in schools as students often make bad choices when it comes to their learning. Helping students understand the counter-intuitive nature of learning, for example the difference between long-term learning and short-term performance, can help build their metacognitive awareness and support them to make better decisions about their learning.

Final thought

Cognitive Science might not have all of the answers, but it does help us to understand why motivating students is so complex and provides some suggestions of how we can influence our classroom environment to support students to become more intrinsically motivated without the need for reliance on extrinsic factors.

Another big thank you to Dr Claire Badger for sharing her expertise with us in this blog and graphic.

About the author

Claire Badger

Claire Badger

Claire Badger has been Assistant Head and in charge of Teaching & Learning at Godolphin & Latymer School since 2015. She has a keen interest in developing evidence-informed practices within schools and recently completed a Masters in Teaching & Learning with the Institute of Education, focusing on developing metacognitive skills in Sixth Form students. Claire is also a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching, which she represents on the ISC Digital Strategy Group.

Follow on XConnect on LinkedIn