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A systematic review of what pupils, aged 11–16, believe impacts on their motivation to learn in the classroom. Summary


A number of definitions of motivation currently exist. These have varying emphases and have largely emerged from theoretical considerations. There is evidence that how motivated or demotivated individuals feel affects their levels of engagement with a task, enjoyment of activities, how and what they learn, and, ultimately, their performance. Given that demotivation can lead to disaffection with, and even disengagement from learning, what pupils themselves have to say about their motivation to learn is an important prerequisite for informing teaching practices in the classroom.

Review focus

Three major questions arose that guided the Review Group's work:

  1. What factors impact on pupils' motivation to learn in the classroom?
  2. Can teachers create conditions in the classroom that sustain, guide and enhance an inherent motivation to learn and how might they do this?
  3. Is it possible for teachers to rekindle motivation in those who have become disaffected and/or disengaged from the formal learning process?

This first review focused on pupils' perceptions of factors that:

  • impact positively or negatively on pupils' motivation to learn in the classroom
  • occur both within and outwith the classroom
  • are intrinsic or extrinsic to the individual.

Review question

What do pupils, aged 11-16, believe impacts on their motivation to learn in the classroom?


Identification of potential studies: search strategy

Reports were identified from the following sources:

  • Bibliographic databases
  • Search of journal publishers' web pages or handsearching of key journals
  • Citation searches of key authors/papers
  • Reference lists of key authors/papers
  • References on key websites
  • Personal contacts
  • Direct requests to key informants.

The Review Group used EndNote to keep track of, and code, studies found during the review.

Screening studies: applying inclusion and exclusion criteria

Titles and abstracts were imported and entered manually. The exclusion criteria were successively applied to (i) titles and abstracts, and (ii) full reports. We obtained full reports for those studies that appeared to meet the criteria or where we had insufficient information to be sure. These reports were entered into a second EndNote file and the exclusion criteria reapplied to the full reports. Those reports that did not meet these initial criteria were excluded.

The exclusion criteria were designed to eliminate the studies that did not directly relate to the review question. The exclusion criteria are as follows:

  1. Does not involve pupils age 11-16.
  2. Centres on pupils not educated in secondary schools (or their equivalent).
  3. Does not report on primary research in which pupils were asked about their motivation to learn
  4. Is not written in English .
  5. Does not contain details of research methods and study.
  6. Reports on data stated as being collected before 1998.
  7. Studies which did not report findings of data collected by interviews with students were excluded.
  8. Studies in which interviews with students were used as pilot studies for the development of methodology (e.g. subsequent questionnaires) were excluded.
  9. Studies in which data/results of interviews with students were not reported separately from results derived from other methods of data collection (e.g. observation) were excluded.
  10. Studies in which data/results of interviews with students were not reported separately from results derived from other sources of data (e.g. teachers) were excluded.

Characterising included studies

The studies remaining after application of the criteria were keyworded using the EPPI-Centre Core Keywording Strategy, Version 0.97. Additional keywords specific to the context of the review were added to those of the EPPI-Centre. All the keyworded studies were added to the larger EPPI-Centre Research Evidence in Education Library (REEL) database, for others to access via the website.

Detailed description of studies in the in-depth review

The studies included in the in-depth review were data extracted, using the EPPI-Centre guidelines and data-extraction questions. This enabled the Review Group to examine systematically each study against the same predetermined questions. The data-extraction details are stored on the EPIC database.

Synthesis of evidence

The data were synthesised to bring together the studies which answered the review question and which met the quality criteria relating to appropriateness and methodology.


Six themes were identified from the studies as key to motivation. These themes are presented in the order of frequency with which they were identified by the studies in the in-depth review:

  • the role of self
  • utility
  • pedagogy
  • peer-group influences
  • learning
  • curriculum.

The role of the self: summary of points

  • Pupils make decisions about school subjects as a result of a range of interconnected factors that occur over time.
  • Once made, these decisions become the dominant influence on the levels of engagement.
  • A belief in innate preferences for particular subjects can be confirmed by parental preferences.
  • The dichotomy between performance and mastery goals is too simplistic.
  • Group work appears to result in greater engagement by pupils.
  • Teacher expectations impact on the effort expended by pupils on school-related work.
  • Boys interviewed in one study felt that the adult community held erroneous perceptions about how they saw themselves and how this impacted on their motivation to learn.

Utility: summary of points

  • Students appear to be more motivated by activities that they perceive as useful or relevant.
  • Even where students perceive a task to be useful, they are not necessarily motivated to go beyond the requirements of the specified learning task.

Pedagogical issues: summary of points

  • Some pupils perceive school work as boring and repetitive.
  • Pupils perceive that a teacher's approach, attitude and enthusiasm influence their engagement.
  • Pupils appear to be more engaged with lessons that they perceive to be fun.
  • Pupils appear less interested when classroom activity takes a formal, passive form.
  • Pupils express a preference for collaborative work.
  • Authentic learning tasks are more likely to engage pupils cognitively .

The influence of peers: summary of points

  • Being perceived as clever appears to be socially acceptable and a source of social respect among peers. However, if 'cleverness' is combined with other characteristics that transgress peer-group norms and values, then it is perceived to be less acceptable.
  • Pupils perceive that the norms and organisation of 'school' interfere with other more desirable forms of peer-group interactions.
  • Pupils frequently expressed the importance of not being made to appear foolish in front of their peer group.

Learning: summary of points

  • Pupils believe that effort is important and can make a difference.
  • Pupil effort appears to be influenced by the expectations of the teacher and expectations of the wider community.
  • Pupils suggested that increased self-understanding came from collaboration, varied methodology and active, experiential work.

Curriculum: summary of points

  • Some pupils perceive the curriculum to be restricted in what it recognises and values as student achievement.
  • Curricula can isolate pupils from their peers and from the subject matter.
  • The way that the curriculum is mediated can send messages that it is not accessible to all.
  • The way that assessment of the curriculum is constructed and practised in school appears to influence how pupils see themselves as learners and social beings.


The review set out to answer the specific question about what pupils, aged 11-16 believe impacts on their motivation to learn in the classroom. As the review findings are derived from a small number of studies (eight), the conclusions are cast in tentative terms.

The six themes listed in the results of this review represent a wider range of influences identified by the eight studies in the in-depth review. The wide range of influences would suggest that motivation is not a simple or binary concept. Motivation, and indeed demotivation, is the result of causal chains rather than single causes. These causal chains help pupils to make affective decisions about particular subject areas. Once these decisions are made, they are used to evaluate and assess subsequent interactions with similar learning topics or situations. If the affective decision is negative, disaffection is likely to occur. The extent to which the pupil disengages will depend, however, on other factors related to motivation (for example, utility).

What happens in classrooms can make a difference; what teachers do can impact both positively and negatively on pupil motivation. Teacher expectations can be too low; there can be overemphasis on activity at the expense of cognitive engagement. The good news is that the activities that pupils seem to enjoy are the very ones that appear more likely to result in cognitive engagement rather than passivity.

While what teachers do appears to impact significantly on pupil motivation, it is not the only influence. This review suggests that factors external to the classroom and the school also have an impact: for example, parental opinions of subject matter and the wider cultural view of the worth of education. Consequently, while teachers can make a difference, both positive and negative, they may not by themselves be able to change the motivational profiles of disaffected and/or disengaged pupils.

The fact that only eight studies were identified for the in-depth review suggests that there is a lack of suitably robust studies with a focus on pupil views available. While there were many studies that used questionnaires and interviews to gather pupils' responses to pre-identified traits of motivation, only eight could be identified that concentrated on pupil voice. Even then, only one study in the in-depth review actively involved pupils themselves in the design and conduct of the research. This lends weight to the discussion in section 5.1 of the technical report, where it is suggested that the research paradigm in which much of the research into pupil voice is located, may be unable to provide the appropriate methodologies for the collection and analysis of such qualitative data.


It would seem easier to ensure that pupils' inherent desires to learn are nurtured rather than to try to change negative affective decisions back into positive ones at a later stage. Across the studies in the in-depth review, it would appear that engagement is more likely if:

  • the lessons are perceived as 'fun'
  • the lessons are varied and participative
  • teachers favour collaborative methodologies
  • pupils perceive activities as useful and authentic.

As a result of the influence that teachers and pedagogy can have on pupil motivation, policy-makers may need to examine:

  • teacher attitudes, expectations and pedagogy within secondary schools
  • the curriculum for the 11-16 age group, in particular what is recognised and valued as student achievement and the role of assessment in nurturing or negatively influencing motivation.

The lack of research which provides a reliable insight into pupil views on motivation is a cause for concern. There is a need for further research that elicits genuine pupil voice and opinion as opposed to pupil responses to predetermined questions and concepts. More specifically, research is required to shed further light on the role of affective decisions on motivation to learn in the classroom:

  • Are young people in the UK making affective decisions that directly influence their motivation to learn in the classroom?
  • At what point might these decisions be formed?
  • What influences such decisions?
  • Is it possible to change these decisions once they are made?

This report should be cited as: Smith C, Dakers J, Dow W, Head G, Sutherland M, Irwin R (2005) A systematic review of what pupils, aged 11-16, believe impacts on their motivation to learn in the classroom.  In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

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