Motivation and the Brain: Insights From the Experts

You can lead a horse to water, but how can you get it to study its SAT vocabulary? This is the challenge that test-prep coaches have dealt with for years. How do we motivate others? Specifically, how do we influence and motivate teenagers?

Each one of us, in some form or fashion, has studied motivation. We are our own case studies. There are things that each of us needs to do, for our own good, that we frequently resist. I can better relate to the struggles of my students when I think of the areas in my life where motivation does not come so easily: completing my rehab exercises for an old ankle injury, maintaining the yard, keeping Quicken up-to-date, finishing my research proposal for the PhD. I understand well the great expanse between setting an intention and completing an action: somewhere along the way, motivation can fail. Or rather, motivation to complete one task may give way to motivation for another.

I’ve searched far and wide to better understand the complexities of motivation: the self-help section of the local bookstore, Youtube, Netflix, graduate school, national research conferences. Motivation is a hot topic! And there are a lot of good ideas out there. This summer I gleaned some insights at the Learning and the Brain Conference in Washington DC, where educational researchers and neuroscientists gathered to share their findings. Their insights may help make our job as tutors, and your job as parents, just a little easier.

It’s more effective to set short term goals for students

The ultimate goal of our work is to get our students into college and set them up for a great experience there, which will hopefully lead to greater opportunities and a satisfying and fulfilling life. However, for students who are counting down the days to impending life events, it’s not so useful to set our sights 20 years out. When rewards are placed too far into the future, their psychological value is greatly diminished. Nueroscientist Dr. Daniel T. Willingham, explored this phenomenon of “time discounting.”

Any of you who have spent much time with young children will understand this well! Consequences or rewards placed too far in the future have very little impact. “If you put your toys away right now, you can have ice-cream in a month;” that’s not going to pack as much punch as the promise of an immediate reward such as “ice cream after lunch.” Likewise, when working with teenagers, it is better to set smaller goals, even daily targets to maximize motivation. In the realm of tutoring, I constantly break down the final goal into measurable, discrete steps. With each successful step along the path, a student’s sense of self-efficacy and mastery grows.

Having choices increases motivation

Autonomy plays a major role in motivation. When students feel they have more freedom to select activities or challenges for themselves, this will generally enhance their level of commitment and investment. I have seen this all too frequently in the domain of tutoring. When students are dragged to tutoring against their will, the outcomes will rarely be positive. Students who have a sense of agency and autonomy, “I’m choosing to be here, of my own volition,” these are the students who experience better results.

Dr. Allan Wigfield, a leading motivation researcher at the University of Maryland, has spent decades studying academic motivation. Wigfield has found that motivation varies from subject to subject, and academic motivation, measured as a global construct, decreases fairly consistently from kindergarten to high school. Our students start school with enthusiasm and energy, but year after year, their motivation decreases. Wigfield and fellow researchers have developed the Concept Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) program to explore motivation for reading and see if they could reverse this trend.

The CORI program focuses on collaboration between students and teachers; creating a supportive environment, characterized by dialogue and positive reinforcement and providing texts at all levels so students have greater choices of what they read. When students have more choices, they exercise their autonomy, read more and consistently show a greater motivation for reading. Supporting student autonomy is fundamental to CORI: Wigfield wants to give every student some control, not just the honors kids. CORI’s research reveals that in this environment of autonomy, dialogue and support, students’ motivation for reading has been turned around in a single academic year.

Believing that we can get smarter increases motivation

Through his CORI project, Wigfield also encourages students to focus on the malleability of their intelligence, the ability of students to enhance and develop their intelligence. Wigfield leans heavily on the research of Carol Dweck, preeminent researcher at Stanford, who found that students’ beliefs about the fixed or variable nature of intelligence informed their behaviors in the classroom.

Resilience, persistence, and creative problem solving are informed by student beliefs regarding whether intelligence is something you develop or something you are born with. Students can either believe “I’m as smart as I’m going to be” or “I can get smarter.” Students who believe they can get smarter over time feel more comfortable taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them. They are not so concerned about revealing their limitations, which are permanent and enduring for those who fall into the fixed intelligence camp.

Throughout the Learning and the Brain conference, neuroscientists touted the most cutting-edge research revealing the malleability of human intelligence. Our brains can change; we can get smarter! Neurogenesis (the ability to generate new neurons) and neuroplasticity (the ability for the brain to change and adapt) are real. The neuroscientists have spoken. We can rewire our brains and make them operate more effectively. This is inspiring! This is motivating! Tell your students and your children!

Motivation looks different for every individual

Dr. Richard Lavoie, author of the Motivation Breakthrough, believes that every human behavior is motivated. Lavoie pointed out that adolescents are caught in a “365 24/7 battle to not be embarrassed. I hope I’m not embarrassed today” is the secret fear. Everyone is trying to keep the spotlight off of himself and keep it on someone else. It’s important to keep this in mind when working with young people.

Lavoie is big on autonomy and believes that reward systems don’t work. He had some great ideas about motivation:

  • Punish, reward, manipulate: these are NOT effective strategies to motivate.
  • Taking away the one thing a kid likes is a bad idea.
  • The only one motivated by competition is the person who thinks he can win.
  • We do our best work when we compete against ourselves.
  • “If he would only try harder, he’d do better” is incorrect. If he’d have some success, some mastery experiences, then he’d try harder.

I really responded to his focus on giving students experiences of mastery and competing with yourself, rather than with others.

Lavoie believes our motivation doesn’t change with age. We all have different motivational profiles that are fairly consistent. Lavoie feels that when an educator understands the motivational profile of a particular student, that teacher will have a much greater likelihood of being able to motivate that student. They will be speaking the same motivational language. The motivational profile of an individual, per Lavoie, is based on “Secondary Needs.” Our personalities are determined by the degree to which we are motivated by these:

  1. Status: need to know how our self-conception is influenced by the opinions of other people
  2. Inquisitiveness: need to know and to learn
  3. Affiliation: need to associate with something larger
  4. Power: need for control, power, influence and authority
  5. Aggression: need to be contentious
  6. Autonomy: need to be independent
  7. Achievement: need for recognition and acknowledgement
  8. Gregariousness: need to belong

A tutor, teacher, or parent looking to motivate a student would do well to understand the currency the student values. Is the student motivated by the need for recognition? The need to connect with another? The need to deeply understand? The need to guide/control the session? If we work with the motivational profiles of our students, we will be more effective with them.

Intrinsic motivation and Self-Determination Theory

Edward L. Deci is one of the giants in the field of motivation, and he has investigated human motivation for four decades. (I’ve cited his research in nearly every paper I’ve written during my graduate studies.) He is currently the director of the Human Motivation Program at the University of Rochester.

At the Learning and the Brain conference, Deci expounded on the two primary types of motivation: intrinsic (motivation from within) and extrinsic (motivation from without). With intrinsic motivation, you do something because it’s interesting and pleasurable. The activity is the reward, or, rather, the reward is inherent in the activity. Students who are engaged in the joy of exploration, discovery, mastery, learning and development are experiencing intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, involves doing an activity explicitly to get some external reward such as money or a grade. The activity is not the reward, but it leads to the reward. The initiation is external.

Deci was one of the earliest researchers to discover that extrinsic rewards can actually undermine intrinsic motivation. When you add a reward to a system, it changes people’s relationship to an activity. The activity is initially interesting, but when the reward is introduced, the focus shifts to obtaining the reward. Intrinsic flips to extrinsic. And when the extrinsic motivator is extinguished, the intrinsic has diminished. Deci insists that using reward systems creates a real risk that motivation and learning will decrease.

Why does this occur?

Deci believes people have a fundamental need to be autonomous rather than controlled. He believes there’s something negative about a reward: chasing the carrot undermines one’s sense of autonomy.

So what can we do to increase motivation?

1) Offering individuals choice
As Whigfield found, Deci also believes that it’s good to give students choices in what, when, and how they do something. It doesn’t have to be full choice; even partial choice is motivating. When people have an opportunity to make choices, they are more engaged and more interested.

2) Acknowledge your student’s feelings
Many activities are intrinsically boring. Acknowledge this and let it be. Saying “I understand you” to some extent conveys a sense of respect by acknowledging the validity of an individual’s own inner experience.

3) Provide positive feedback (AKA verbal rewards)
We all have a psychological need to be and to feel competent. Rewards can be given in an informational way, as a means to recognize, rather than control another.

Deci’s research reveals that when students experience a greater sense of autonomy, this generally leads to a greater degree of global self-confidence in addition to increased:

  • conceptual understanding
  • feelings of competence
  • creativity
  • grades
  • psychosocial health
  • effective coping

When placed in less autonomous, more controlling environments, students can achieve rote memorization; however, there are limits to their learning. Their knowledge gains will be characterized by poor maintenance (the knowledge fades quickly) and transfer (it can’t be easily applied to other domains). Additionally, conceptual learning will be lower and intrinsic motivation will be diminished in more controlling learning environments.

Deci and his colleagues have crafted a theory to explain how motivation functions: Self-Determination Theory (SDT). The three pillars of this theory are Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. We want to feel our sense of agency (Autonomy) in the world; we want to feel that we are effective in dealing with the world (Competence); we want to be connected to and related to others (Relatedness).

Rather than using controlling extrinsic rewards, Deci has found that using verbal praise and positive feedback increases intrinsic motivation. Positive feedback is not controlling and allows students to maintain a sense of autonomy.

How do you motivate students under the SDT framework?

According to Deci and colleagues, if you want to motivate a student, there are several things you should do:

  1. Encourage your students’ self-initiation and exploration.
  2. Offer your students relevant choices in a session.
  3. Collaborate with your students and create challenges for them.
  4. Give your students meaningful feedback and provide a rationale for requested behavior.
  5. Help your students understand how information can help them and how it’s meaningful.
  6. Minimize the use of controlling language in a session. “Should, must, have to, ought” these become controls, demands. It’s better to try to understand your students and see their points of view.


The big takeaway for me is that to motivate students, you need to understand them and respect them, rather than control or manipulate them. Focus on positive reinforcement and use informational rewards whenever possible. When students are moving closer to mastery, let them know, let them feel competent. Whenever possible, give your students meaningful choices: choices in their approach to problem solving, choices in what we will focus on during a session. Continually reinforce the notion that intelligence is malleable. Let students understand the sheer potential that they have; their ability to rewire their brains and shed old limitations. Just because they’ve struggled with timing, or reading, or structuring in the past, doesn’t mean they are destined to continually repeat their old patterns. Our job is to inspire, to encourage autonomy, and to keep the focus on possibility rather than on limitations.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or