20 September 2022

The question returns like a boomerang: How to make pupils want to learn?


The Holistic Think Tank team has been working for many months on an international research project on primary school education. Investigating similarities and differences in school environments in different countries involves using a wide range of sources from fields such as pedagogy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.  These sources come in a variety of forms – reports from current research projects, interviews with various experts or academic knowledge from textbooks.

As part of the work on the aforementioned research, the HTT team conducted a pilot survey in one of the Polish schools. The specific nature of pilot surveys is that the data obtained from them are not included in the analysis of results of the actual survey. However, the pilot survey results give some insight into the type of respondents’ answers that can be expected during the essential part of the survey. Conclusions from the pilot survey are therefore a guide for the expected results of the survey.

During the pilot survey, we surveyed a group of teachers, children and parents. One of the main thoughts that has emerged from the analysis of statements by all respondents is that the issue of motivating pupils to learn is one of the most important challenges they face in course of the education process. This conclusion is not surprising – authors of literature on school education have for many years been trying to answer the question: How to make pupils want to learn? To explore this issue, it is worth focusing on what motivation to learn actually is, what significance it bears and whether it is worth working on.

1. What is the motivation to learn?

The term motivation comes from the Latin word movere which means to move. As we know, moving is connected with taking a certain direction, exercising one’s will, making a certain choice. It is not uncommon for motivation to be equated with such concepts as “intention, intent, will, wish or interest” (Makarewicz, 2021). Motivation can be defined as a conscious or unconscious state of internal tension that stimulates an individual to act. Motivation can be stimulated intrinsically or extrinsically. The intrinsic motivation stimulates a person to act for reasons resulting, for example, from his or her interests or passions. The extrinsic motivation results from the encouragement that comes from the individual’s environment, stimulating him or her to act, and springs out of the expectation to receive a reward or avoid punishment (Jasiński, 2007). In other words, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation differ in the source that stimulates an individual’s intrinsic state, making him or her ready to act.

Within the definition of the notion of motivation, several components of it can be specified. The state of motivation will therefore consist of arousal of energy, selective concentration of attention on significant stimuli, directing the effort towards a specific goal, organisation of activity and persistence in continuing the undertaken activity (Tołwińska, 2007). With reference to the Latin word “movere” quoted above, one can imagine motivation as making and continuing an effort in the form of movement consciously focused on achieving a certain goal.

In the case of school-age children who face challenges of compulsory education, one can address the question of their motivation to learn. The motivation to learn is, in a broader sense, a motivation to undertake and pursue educational and developmental challenges that has a significant effect on the course of the learning process (Makarewicz, 2021). This term has a broad meaning and it can therefore be useful both in considering educational successes and in explaining lack of them.

2. Dispute on the source of motivation

In the light of the above information, it is worth considering where pupils’ motivation to learn comes from. Positions on the source of stimulation of the motivation to learn are divided among literature authors.  According to J. Bruner, nearly all children have an inborn desire to learn. For this reason, while considering the support of this type of motivation, one can only speak of an intrinsically stimulated state and not about acquiring stimuli from the outside. On the other hand, according to J. Brophy, every individual shapes his or her own motivational system based on his or her own experiences and under the influence of significant people, i.e. in the case of pupils, of parents and teachers (Makarewicz, 2021). These views are opposed by the neuroscientist J. Bauer according to whom motivation is not an inborn trait.  He points out that only neurobiological systems present in the organism of each human being are innate. These systems are stimulated by stimuli coming from the external environment, which results in the activation of motivation in the individual (Rybicka, Plebanski, 2016).  The intrinsically induced motivation is therefore, according to J. Bauer, only a theoretical construct.

An important voice in the discussion about the motivation stimulation direction seems to be the concept authored by R.M. Ryan and E.L. Deci. They developed a theory called a “self-determination theory” in which they assume the existence of a kind of continuum of motivation which a human being follows. The continuum begins in the state of amotivation and moves towards taking intrinsically motivated actions. These behaviours are fully autonomous although a significant role in supporting the development and satisfying the needs is played by the person’s specific social environment and its interactions (Ryan, Deci, 2000; as cited by: Makarewicz, 2011). Looking at the issue of the motivation to learn from a slightly broader perspective, one can see that it is most often identified with the readiness to engage in learning activities in a school environment situation. It is worth noting, however, that the motivation to learn should also be considered in terms of the individual learning process that is unrelated to the school context.

Looking at the issue of individual motivation to learn independently undertaken by a child, one can define it as a cognitive reaction related to the assigning of meanings to the acquired knowledge and using them in the aspect of the already possessed knowledge (Tołwińska, 2009). The individual motivation to learn is related to the individual’s subjective feelings, involvement in the learning process, the activities he or she undertakes and the reasons that guide his or her behaviour. As noted in the literature, the intrinsic motivation stems from the pupil’s needs, interests and perceived purposefulness of learning (Tołwińska, 2009). In the aforementioned pilot survey, the group of children being surveyed clearly signalled their expectations related to educational activities. For the pupils participating in the pilot survey, it was very important to find the activities interesting to them and to see a purpose of the learning process.

These considerations from the literary sources and the data obtained in course of the pilot survey lead to a simple yet very difficult question: How to make the child see a purpose in learning? The answer to this question may prove valuable in considering how to encourage pupils to learn. Considering the context of the classroom, the pupils in the classroom form a group and these groups have their own dynamics. By spending time together, pupils influence the activities of their schoolmates by mutually regulating their behaviours. On the other hand, a school class consists of individuals with different personalities, family situations or health conditions. Can we therefore speak of universal ways to promote motivation to learn in a group of pupils?

3. Good motivational practices

From a theoretical point of view, one can distinguish between practices that aim at raising motivation in children to engage in learning activities and in aiding to maintain it. The key activities undertaken by teachers or parents include: “making the pupil aware of the purpose of the learning activities undertaken, providing feedback, rewarding, presenting their own example, and communicating effectively with the pupil” (Tołwińska, 2009). The aforementioned interactions can be understood as a kind of package of complementary behaviours. As mentioned earlier, moving (Latin movere) should take place in a clearly defined direction, representing a goal. A clear and adequate formulation of the learning goal allows to inspire the pupil to believe that he or she can achieve it. The most stimulating power comes with the learning goals that are related to the pupil’s interests, which the pupil understands and finds worth the effort. Feedback should refer to specific behaviours – both positive and negative ones that need to be changed. Positive behaviours should be rewarded with various kinds of praises or distinctions. Setting oneself as an example serves as a kind of the behaviour model which the child can follow in the future. Communicating effectively with the pupil allows for an effective exchange of ideas with the learner and makes it possible to implement the practices described above. In the process of supporting the pupil’s learning, it is very important to understand that motivating other people is a process that should include all of the above elements. Single activities undertaken from time to time unfortunately have no chance of being effective.

These good practices combine elements of extrinsic motivation through feedback and rewarding while influencing intrinsic motivation through goal awareness and behaviour modelling. Given the specific nature of how motivation works and the various theoretical approaches to the way it is stimulated, one might wonder whether there exists a universal way of supporting the motivation to learn that could prove effective in relation to the learning process from an individual as well as a group perspective.  The issue of developing a system designed to motivate pupils to learn seems to be an important challenge in the contemporary education that is equally faced by teachers, pupils and parents. For this reason, this issue will be further considered developed in the future publications of HTT.

Literary Sources:

  • Jasiński, W. (2007). Motywacje uczniów do nauki (doniesienie badawcze) [English: Pupils’ motivations for learning (research report)]. In: Niemierka, B., Szmigiel, M.K. (ed.). Uczenie się i egzamin w oczach uczniów : XIII Konferencja Diagnostyki Edukacyjnej [English: Learning and examination in the eyes of pupils : 13th Educational Diagnostics Conference]. Kraków : gRUPA TOMAMI
  • Makarewicz, M. (2021). Sposoby wspierania motywacji do uczenia się w alternatywnym modelu edukacji – perspektywa rodziców uczniów w młodszym wieku szkolnym [English: Ways of supporting motivation to learn in an alternative education model – the perspective of early school-age pupils’ parents.] In: Jurczyk-Romanowska, E., Musiał, E. ,Walasek, S. (ed.), Wychowanie w Rodzinie [English: Family Upbringing], Volume XXIV (1/2021) (p. 253-272). Wrocław: EDUsfera. Ewa Jurczyk-Romanowska
  • Rybicka, K., Plebański, S. (2016). Budowanie, wzmacnianie i diagnozowanie motywacji wewnętrznej uczniów [English: Building, strengthening and diagnosing pupils’ intrinsic motivation]. In: In: Niemierka, B., Szmigiel, M.K. (ed.). Diagnozowanie twórczości uczniów i nauczycieli :XXII Konferencja Diagnostyki Edukacyjnej [English: Diagnosing the creativity of pupils and teachers: 22nd Educational Diagnostics Conference]. Kraków: gRUPA TOMAMI
  • Tołwińska, B.(2009). Motywacja dzieci do uczenia się (problemy dzieci, rola dorosłych) [English: Children’s motivation to learn (children’s problems, role of adults)]. In: Izdebska, J., Szymanowska, J. (ed.), Wielowymiarowość przestrzeni życia współczesnego dziecka [English: Multidimensionality of the contemporary child’s life space], p. 195-203, Białystok : Trans Humana Wydawnictwo Uniwersyteckie