Why Motivation & Engagement Matter in Education

Think about a class you particularly enjoyed when you were in school or one of your most successful lessons as an educator. One of the things that likely made this lesson such a success was high student engagement, having a classroom filled with students eager to engage with the material and even wanting to learn more! This is why student engagement is important. Sparking student interest and engagement motivates students’ learning. For this reason, finding new ways to engage all students in each lesson can help to optimize their learning. Motivation plays a key role in this process as increasing student motivation in the classroom can ultimately increase engagement and achievement.  Nevertheless, our schools struggle when it comes to motivation and engagement. Engagement levels decline sharply after 5th grade in the United States.1 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, about a third of students felt engaged.1,2,3. This phenomenon is certainly not unique to the United States. If left unaddressed, these factors may negatively influence secondary student engagement 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 And that’s not all. 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 year, and 2 times more likely to feel discouraged about the future. Moreover, when asked, only 55% of students in elementary school said they felt like they had at least one educator who makes them excited about the future. This percentage is worryingly low as younger students who have positive relationships with their educators are more likely to have better social, cognitive, and language development.5 Studies show that students who believe their educator is caring also believe they learn more.1 This is significant because it suggests that opportunities to build strong and trusting relationships are important for engaging student and promote their learning. Engaging students is critical at both the elementary and secondary levels. Educators can have a positive impact on students’ engagement through their cultivation of strong relationships and classroom environments, and this engagement can significantly improve student outcomes. Ultimately, the more engaged students are, the more likely they will be to make an emotional connection to their learning, which helps ensure learning occurs. The challenge for educators is to build this engaging environment and cultivate a culture where students are engaged because they feel like they have an adult that cares about them. Educators play a critical role in cultivating the learning environment of their students as well as in making learning objectives clear. Motivation is crucial for increasing engagement. According to Ambrose and colleagues, motivation directs students’ behaviors and is a necessary component of learning.6 If we can motivate our students to engage with our coursework and make it a priority, we increase the chances that they will be successful in the course.7 Furthermore, students’ motivation can influence judgment of their own ability to complete a task. This is important because studies show that if students feel more confident and in control of their own behavior, they are more likely to be motivated, persist, and ultimately achieve.8 Once our students are motivated, they are also more likely to have positive engagement. This means students can actively use strategies to understand content, problem-solve, think critically, and use information in a productive way. This creates a circular effect, called the cycle of positive engagement, in that students who perform successfully are more likely to positively engage in the future. Therefore, “the importance of motivation in the context of learning cannot be overstated”.9


  1. Gallup Student Poll. (2015). Engaged today — ready for tomorrow. http://www.gallupstudentpoll.com/ 
  2. Gallup Student Poll. (2016). Engaged today — ready for tomorrow. http://www.gallupstudentpoll.com/ 
  3. Gallup Student Poll. (2023). Engaged today — ready for tomorrow. http://www.gallupstudentpoll.com/ 
  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.
  5. 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
  6. Kontos, S., & Wilcox-Herzog, A. (1997). Influences on children’s competence in early childhood classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 12(3), 247-262. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0885-2006(97)90002-8
  7. 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.
  8. Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Cengage Learning.
  9. Hulleman, C. S., & Barron, K. E. (2016). Motivation interventions in education. In L. Corno, & E. M. Anderman (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (3rd ed., pp. 160-171). Routledge.
  10. Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543074001059
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.