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Why motivating students isn’t easy…

…and what we can do about it.

Hello! Welcome to the 14th edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through which we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

Different students show different levels of motivation in school. Often, we label students as motivated or unmotivated. For example, if a child consistently doesn’t do well in a particular subject, say Maths, we try to motivate him by either asking him to try harder and put in more effort, or perhaps offering an external motivation such as a star on the class chart or extra time during games period. However, we see that these strategies rarely work. Why is this so?

As we will discuss in this article, motivation does not work in such a straightforward manner, and it also works differently for different people. We will use a model developed by Bernard Weiner known as the Attribution Theory of Motivation.

This quadrant helps us think through what a student attributes his/her successes and failures to:

Let’s read two examples and explore how the quadrant works.

Megha, a Grade 6 student, struggles in her language classes. She reads at a Grade 2 level and fails to write more than 2 to 3 words at a time. She attends remediation classes every evening, but she is making very slow progress. During these classes, she seems anxious and stressed.

Her teacher learns about the Attribution Quadrant and decides to use it to identify if Megha’s inability to learn languages stems from a motivation issue. During this conversation, Megha mentions, “I am just not good at learning new languages. Even at home, I can’t learn my native language Telugu and just speak in Marathi, which I’ve grown up learning.”

Based on this, her teacher identifies that Megha attributes her struggles to an internal factor ‘ability’ and this factor is stable, that is, Megha doesn’t believe her ability can change.

The teacher now understands that no amount of remediation classes will work because Megha simply doesn’t believe she can learn new languages.

To address this, her teacher decides to help Megha see that ability is not a stable factor. For this, she conducts an activity with Megha to show her that the brain is able to change and grow throughout a person’s life. She shows Megha a video about how neurons in our brain form connections when we learn, and the more we work through our struggles to learn something new, the stronger the connections become. Our brain is like a muscle – we have to exercise it for it to grow. Her aim is to move Megha from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Next, her teacher replans her remediation classes in a way that will provide Megha with the motivation and support to move forward in her learning. For this, she uses the concept of ‘the zone of proximal development’. This zone is the distance between what a learner can do without assistance and what she can do under the guidance of an adult or in collaboration with peers. Using this concept, her teacher breaks down the language learning activities into smaller chunks and provides Megha with the right assistance, activities and tools to give her enough of a boost. For example, instead of asking Megha to read sentences from a story, she uses phonics principles to focus on one letter-sound combination at a time, giving her ample practice with each combination. As Megha achieves success on these smaller tasks, her confidence and motivation begin to grow.


Karan, a Grade 9 student, does moderately well on most subjects, but he fails every Physics exam. He refuses to attend extra Physics classes held by the school before every exam. Based on this, his teacher concludes that Karan doesn’t want to put in the effort because he dislikes the subject.

When his teacher learns about the Attribution Quadrant, he decides to use it to identify if Karan’s struggle with Physics stems from a motivation issue. During this conversation, Megha mentions, “I am just unlucky! The Physics paper always ends up including questions on topics I haven’t studied well!”

Based on this, his teacher identifies that Karan attributes his struggles to an external factor ‘luck’ and believes this factor is stable. “I am always unlucky!”

The teacher now understands why Karan refuses to attend extra classes – he believes no amount of revising will help because the cause of his struggle is external.

Based on this understanding, the teacher comes up with a plan. He convinces Karan to attend one-on-one extra classes with him, three times a week. These classes are light-hearted discussions about Physics concepts, along with some hands-on work. At the end of every class, the teacher asks Karan a few questions to check for his understanding. Thanks to the informal tone, Karan has no problem answering these questions right. His teacher notes down his responses and assigns him marks, after he has left. At the end of 3 weeks, she hands him over a report card based on all his answers – he is now at a 75%.

His teacher explains to him that when he understood the concepts well, he did well on these informal exams. Additionally, when he didn’t know he was being tested, he was able to think clearly and answer confidently. His belief that exams will always be tough was what was holding him back.

At the same time, the teacher understands that Karan needs hands-on activities to learn abstract Physics concepts. He promises Karan that extra classes will be hands-on going forward, and Karan promises to attend all of them. The teacher continues conducting informal tests with him over the next few months, and bit by bit, Karan begins to attribute his successes and failures to his efforts and beliefs rather than to luck.


Isha believes that she doesn’t do well on History exams because she doesn’t put in enough effort. If she tried harder, she would do better. Here, Isha is attributing her failure to an internal factor ‘effort’ which, according to her, is unstable. She believes she can change the effort she puts in.

In this case, Isha’s teacher can help her identify why she doesn’t put in enough effort and support her in addressing that. This could be done by enabling Isha to read History like a story so that it is more interesting to her; or creating graphic organisers or artwork, if that is what Isha enjoys.

Aadit believes that when his teacher likes him, he does well on his exam because the teacher gives him better marks; but when his teacher doesn’t like him, he is graded more strictly and doesn’t do well on his exam. Aadit attributes his successes and failures to an external factor ‘how much his teacher likes him’, which is unstable, because different teachers like him a different amount. What are some strategies that you would use to address Aadit’s attributions and enable him to do better?


Useful Links:

  • This article by parent blogger Ashley Cullins explains how we can talk to children about building a growth mindset, with a focus on how the brain can change and grow.

  • This short article explains the Attribution Theory of Motivation and gives some tips on how we can influence students’ attributions.


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Edition: 1.14

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