This site use cookies to provide the best possible experience for you. By closing this message you agree to our use of cookies. Our full privacy policy is available here.
Close disclaimer

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

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.
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.

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 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 cognitively engage pupils.

The influence of peers: summary of points

  • Being perceived as clever appears to be socially acceptable and a source of social respect amongst 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.
Systematic review
A systematical summary of studies in the current topic based on formal criterias for evalution of related studies.
Published: 09.04.2013
Last updated 27.10.2014
PDF PDF - 1,5 MB Project summary

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, however, to which the pupil disengages will depend 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 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 require 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?