Motivating Yourself to Learn

Researchers and educators have long been puzzled by the issue of motivation. This tile reveals some of the key motivators in learning.


What is Motivation?

Do you remember the last time you tried to study something for a test? If you’re like most people, you will have spent most of that time trying to motivate yourself to study and then would have studied the actual content in no time at all. Procrastination is something we are all familiar with.

Although cognitive psychologists have long since recognized the relationship between learning and motivation, they have – perhaps surprisingly – paid relatively little attention to motivation in learning. Studies on motivation have been conducted but there is no commonly accepted unifying theory of what is known to educational practice.

In this tile, we’ll look at what the existing research on motivation has found, as it relates to the science of learning.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

Psychologists have found that people are driven by 2 basic types of motivators: intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation propels you to do something because you want to do it.

For example, if you’re writing an essay because you’re intellectually curious but there’s no deadline or test, you are intrinsically motivated. The primary motivation in this scenario is your interest in the topic and your desire to write about it.

Extrinsic motivation involves doing something because of an outcome, such as receiving a reward. If you’re writing the same essay to enter into a competition with a $100 cash prize, you are extrinsically motivated. Rather than being motivated by the task itself, you are motivated by the gains you could make from doing the task.

Of course, in most situations we are motivated by a mixture of the 2. It’s also the case that one task that inspires great intrinsic motivation in one person will only work on extrinsic motivation for another.

Some people get genuine pleasure out of spreadsheets, for example – others won’t even go near one unless they’re paid to!

Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be highly valuable. Extrinsic motivation gets a bad rap, but it’s essential – the world needs people to look at spreadsheets, even if they don’t intrinsically care for them.

However, studies have found that, in a learning context, intrinsic motivation is the gold standard – the very highest achievers almost always have intrinsic motivation, and really care about their field.

The advantages of intrinsic motivation include higher job satisfaction, higher productivity, and less susceptibility to burn-out than extrinsic motivators such as high pay – which is an external reward.

In learning contexts, students who are guided by intrinsic motivators, such as a passion for learning, generally have higher grades, tend to be less prone to depression, and may even have better physical health, than those who are motivated solely by external rewards.

Intrinsic Motivation and Emotion

One of the most significant intrinsic factors that can affect motivation in learning and performance is emotion.

Emotions may affect motivation positively or negatively. John MacBeath, a Cambridge Professor of Education, calls this “the linking of thinking and feeling,” adding that, in today’s neuroscience, we have the technology to “peer inside the brain” and observe motivation and demotivation up close. This reveals what makes the brain light up in the emotional processing centers of the amygdala and limbic system.


This technology shows that positive emotions such as optimism and self-belief “spark a bioelectrical network of activity” which makes learning easier.

How Negative Feedback Inhibits Learning

Have you ever been punished for getting an answer wrong? Whether it was your teacher at school or your boss at work during a critical meeting, we all know how being humiliated can make us feel – like we just want to give up.

The negative emotions that result from punishing rather than correcting errors makes it much more difficult to work. In schools around the world, according to the leading educational scientist Stanislas Dehaene, error feedback “has come to be synonymous with punishment and stigmatization, causing children to lose confidence and curiosity.”

Repeated punishment leads to ‘learned helplessness,’ which is a kind of mental paralysis. Learned helplessness has even been shown to inhibit learning in animals.

Eliminating punishment mechanisms is a key way to ensure that potential curiosity is not wasted.

What Are Different Learning Orientations?

Have you ever set yourself a goal when learning? Perhaps you wanted to learn to build a website with CSS. Perhaps you want to understand how an internal combustion engine works. Or you might have set yourself a target for the grade you want to get for your end of year exams.

While these may sound like similar aims, they actually fall into 2 different categories of educational goals. These are ‘performance-oriented’ and ‘learning- oriented’ goals, and different people respond to them differently.

When people aim to learn for specific knowledge or skill improvements, they are learning-oriented. On the other hand, when people learn with the aim of achieving good results in tests or other metrics, they are performance-oriented.

As a general rule, learning-oriented targets are better ones to set than performance-oriented targets. It’s better to set a goal about what you want to understand than about a specific score you want to achieve.

An interesting thing to consider with this is that performance and learning orientation vary by discipline. You might be results-oriented in maths, and learning-oriented in geography, or vice versa. If you give it some thought, you probably know which ones you are already!

The Problem with Performance Goals

Compared to learning goals, performance goals are self-limiting. When you’re performance-oriented, you’re working to prove your credentials. Because performance goals are so obviously on a ‘pass-fail’ basis, you select challenges you’re confident you can meet.

Those who are learning-oriented work to increase their ability by acquiring new knowledge or skills. Because of this, according to Stanislas Dehaene, they “pick ever increasing challenges, and […] interpret setbacks as useful information that helps [them] to sharpen [their] focus, get more creative, and work harder.”

Performance orientation, on the other hand, is more likely to create a fear of risk-taking and a fear of failure. This can be overcome by focusing more on learning-oriented goals.

Social Opportunities

Studies have found that learners also tend to be more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they’re learning and use that information to do something that has an impact on others – especially their local community.

In one study, sixth-grade students in an inner-city school were asked to describe the highlights of their previous school year to an anonymous interviewer, focusing on anything that made them feel ‘proud,’ ‘successful,’ or ‘creative.’ The schoolchildren frequently mentioned projects that had a strong positive social impact.

Social opportunities – feeling that one is contributing something to others – are another powerful motivator in learning. In a study of first-grade learners in an inner-city school, researchers found that the schoolchildren were ‘highly motivated’ to draw pictures and write stories that they could share with others.

So, next time you’re learning, take the time to step back. Think about why you’re learning it and try to tie it back to your own social opportunities. If you do, it will help you stay motivated and learn better.

Perceptions Matter

Our perceptions play a big role in shaping how motivated we are to solve problems. To motivate us and sustain our interest, challenges need to be at the appropriate level of difficulty. If they are too easy, the task becomes boring. Conversely, if they are too difficult, we’ll end up feeling defeated and frustrated.

Learners tend to be more motivated when they have worked hard and perceive a task to have taken more effort on their part.

In the study of sixth-grade inner-city learners, the schoolchildren had to work hard. One of the projects involved learning about geometry and architecture to create blueprints to build a playhouse for their community. The activities that required more effort from the learners led to greater self-reported satisfaction.

In other words – it needs to be possible for people to make errors, in order for them to feel motivated by getting things right. The same study actually reported an optimal success rate for motivation of ~80%. That means that when learners are getting things wrong around 20% of the time, they’ll be optimally motivated.

Should Learning Be Easy?

Robert Bjork and his wife Elizabeth have written extensively on what they call ‘desirable difficulties’ in learning. Based on their research, some of the conditions under which we learn will result in more frustration than techniques that feel more intuitive and natural. They may even produce less immediate success.

However, all desirable difficulty techniques lead to better long-term retention.

Some techniques, including retrieval practice and testing, interleaving, spacing, and changing locations, fall under the umbrella of desirable difficulties. These techniques are hard, but they yield better results than techniques that make learning feel effortless, like re-reading and highlighting.

No (planned, carefully designed) pain, no gain!


The motivation factors we’ve been discussing – especially managed difficulty, learning-oriented goals, and the value of positive emotions – are all factors in the exciting new field of gamified learning.

In the past few years, cognitive research around learning and motivation has been combined with game design and web development to produce digital gamified learning.

Well-designed gamified learning can take care of all of the different motivation factors we’ve discussed and deliver content in a way that is optimally engaging.

The most famous example of this is Duolingo, which implements a neuroscience-backed approach to keeping people engaged in learning new languages.

Here at Kinnu, we aim to do the same, but to help you learn anything you want. Our gamification features are built to trigger all of the motivation factors discussed in this tile, to make sure people keep the focus that’s so essential to truly mastering areas of knowledge.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

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