Student motivation & engagement: Key concepts

When compared to engaged students, disengaged students are: 9 times more likely to get poor grades in school, 2 times more likely to miss significant amounts of school in the past year, and 2 times more likely to feel discouraged about the future.



In many school systems around the world, there is a general lack of engagement and motivation from students. Furthermore, there is even evidence of a negative correlation between schooling and engagement / motivation. With every year of schooling, we see a reduction in engagement and motivation. This is concerning as we can’t succeed at learning if we don’t care to learn. Research shows that engagement levels decline sharply after 5th grade. A study found that 74% of students were engaged in grade 5, 67% of students were engaged in grade 6, and by grade 12 this number declined to 34%. In other words, just about a third of students felt engaged.1,2,3 Another study concluded that between the ages of 12 and 14 students’ enjoyment of learning declined (from 84% to 70%), while their boredom increased (from 12% to 34%).4

Whether you’re an educator, a parent, a student or just someone interested in how to improve learning, you are probably concerned about motivation in the classroom or engaging students. You might be asking yourself, “Why is student engagement important? What are some ways to engage students? What does student engagement look like?”. Therefore, understanding and applying motivation theory to teaching can help align expectations to students’ goals, and enhance their motivation to do the work in our courses.


Root causes of student disengagement

There are many possible explanations to why students feel disengaged and lack motivation. One possible reason for this is related to student-educator relationships and emotional engagement. There is a comparatively lower level of adult attention at the secondary school level compared to the earlier stages of education. Consequently, secondary school students may feel like they do not have an adult that cares about them in their school2. This is important because research reveals that high school students want connectedness and view it as a high priority.

Where does motivation come from?

There are two big sources of motivation: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, the drive within us, can be one of the best ways for students to stay engaged. Self-Determination Theory states that intrinsic motivation is based on three psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation refers to stimuli that can motivate students from the outside. The Expectancy Theory of Motivation suggests that motivation is impacted by  the individual’s future expectations.


What does student engagement look like?

Motivation plays a critical role in guiding the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of the learning behaviors in which students engage. When they find positive value in a learning goal or activity, expect to successfully achieve a desired learning outcome, and perceive support from their environment, they are likely to be strongly motivated to learn. There are common traits among motivated students: they are self-efficacious and they find value in the course material and feel supported in their learning environment. 

With regards to engagement, we can consider three dimensions: behavioral engagement, emotional engagement, and cognitive engagement. For a student to be fully engaged, all three dimensions must be met. Fortunately, educators can positively influence all three. 


Increasing student engagement

Disengagement and demotivation are a far too prevalent issue with far reaching consequences for students and their learning process. The Science of Learning has uncovered many strategies that educators can use to increase engagement and motivation. This objective is well within their reach and it is up to them to spark the interest of their students. Some ways in which educators can engage and motivate students are by fostering a classroom environment where students feel ownership and membership or by managing their expectations for students, among many more. 

Nowadays our education systems use academic performance to infer learning. However, grades are an extrinsic motivation, while learning is intrinsic. Therefore, when we ask students to “perform academically”, we are not only motivating them extrinsically but also trying to find evidence of learning through a faulty methodology.


  1. Gallup Student Poll. (2015). Engaged today — ready for tomorrow. 
  2. Gallup Student Poll. (2016). Engaged today — ready for tomorrow. 
  3. Gallup Student Poll. (2023). Engaged today — ready for tomorrow.
  4. Wylie, C., & Hodgen, E. (2012). Trajectories and patterns of student engagement: Evidence from a longitudinal study. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 585-599). Springer.
Science of Learning Insights to Your Inbox.​

Subscribe to receive these evidence-based insights. Together let’s deepen our understanding of the science behind effective teaching and learning.