What causes unmotivated students?

Research shows that student engagement levels decline sharply after 5th grade in the United States 1. A study found 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%)2. This phenomenon is certainly not unique to the United States. For example, a study in New Zealand had comparable findings, and research literature suggests these trends appear to be consistent in other countries. This may be because educators’ beliefs about what motivates students to learn are different from what actually motivates their students. Therefore, understanding and applying motivation theory to our teaching can help align educator expectations to students’ goals, and enhance their motivation to do the work in courses.3

One reason for the decline in student engagement is related to student-educator relationships and emotional engagement. Research revealed that only 55% of students in elementary school feel like they have at least one educator who makes them excited about the future. Furthermore, 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 school. This is important both for emotional engagement and because research reveals that high school students want connectedness and view it as a high priority.1

Another reason for the decline in engagement and motivation can be that students feel unchallenged by the tasks they face in school. Educators should ensure that students are appropriately challenged. There is a vast amount of literature on the importance of pushing a student to perform above their ability without frustrating them. It is often referred to as Zone of Proximal Development, Productive Struggle, Gradual Prompting or Desirable Difficulties. To feel motivated the material should never be too easy nor too challenging, but at the edge of their current capacity. 

If left unaddressed, these factors may negatively influence secondary student engagement in school and can even influence high school dropout rates. This was illustrated in a study by Icelandic researchers Blondal and Adalbjarnardottir, which reinforced the idea that secondary school dropout is a “process in which students disengage and withdraw from school” (p. 97) 4. Calderon and Yu present additional data that demonstrates the potential negative relationship between disengagement and outcomes in secondary school.5


  1. Gallup Student Poll. (2015). Engaged today — ready for tomorrow. http://www.gallupstudentpoll.com/ 
  2. 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.
  3. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  4. Blondal, K. S., & Adalbjarnardottir, S. (2012). Student disengagement in relation to expected and unexpected educational pathways. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 56(1), 85-100. https://doi.org/10.1080/00313831.2011.568607
  5. Calderon, V. J., & Yu, D. (2017, June 1). Student enthusiasm falls as high school graduation nears. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/211631/student-enthusiasm-falls-high-school-graduation-nears.aspx
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