Student Motivation

The Science of Motivation

Student Motivation featured image

At, we use adaptive learning apps that personalize learning to every student, and solve Bloom’s 2-sigma problem.

Great! But how do we actually get kids to want to use learning apps?

Basically, decades of research! We have reviewed the psychological research on motivation and selected three types of motivational tools to engage kids in learning via adaptive apps:

  1. Ambitious Goal Setting
  2. Financial Incentives
  3. Social Motivators

Why Should Students Set Ambitious Goals?

We encourage kids to set goals. Not just goals, but ambitious goals. Why?

First of all, goal setting works! The positive impacts of goal-setting (i.e. increases in achievement or performance from setting goals) have been found in studies for more than 88 different tasks, including driving, health-promoting behaviors, logging, maintenance and technical work, managerial work, management training, and safety, involving more than 40,000 participants worldwide (Locke & Latham, 1991). Positive results have been found in both laboratory and field settings, over time spans of 1 minute to 25 years, and at the individual and group level (Locke and Latham, 2006).

The second reason we encourage kids to set ambitious goals is because (counterintuitively), difficult and challenging goals work better than easy goals.

That’s right. Studies have shown that there is a linear relationship between goal difficulty and performance, as long as the individual has the ability to reach the goal.

In a review of 110 studies from 1968-1980, Locke et al. (1981) reported that 90% of studies found specific hard goals produced better performance than medium goals, easy "do your best" goals, or no goals at all. Figure 13 illustrates the linear relationship between goal difficulty and performance.

Figure 13

Adapted from "A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance" by E. Locke, Edwin, and G. Latham, 1991. The Academy of Management Review, 16.

In one specific example of a study, eighty families were asked to set a goal to reduce their residential electricity consumption for several weeks during the summer, half of them by 20% (a difficult goal) and half by 2% (an easy goal). The 20% group conserved the most energy and was the only one that consumed significantly less electricity than the control group (Becker, 1978).

What Makes Ambitious Goals Successful?

When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.


Setting ambitious goals is nothing new. Throughout history, people have always strived to accomplish new and better things. However, our understanding of the characteristics of effective goal setting is still developing.

Modern goal-setting theory is largely the result of four decades of research by psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham (2002). They used their own research and that of others to formulate principles of successful goal setting.

According to Locke and Latham, there are five goal-setting principles that can improve the chances of success:

  1. Clarity: Goals should be clear and specific. For example, if your goal is to “eat more fruit”, eating only one piece of fruit a day could meet that goal, whereas a goal of “eat 5 pieces of fruit per day” is very explicit and does not allow for a wide range of outcomes.
  2. Challenge: Specific and challenging goals lead to a higher level of performance than easy goals, as shown in Figure 13. Interestingly, vague goals like “do your best” tend to lead to lower performance than more challenging goals, because people will consider a wide range of performance levels as meeting the goal. (Mento, Locke, and Klein, 1992)
  3. Commitment: When goals are challenging, commitment leads to higher performance (Erez & Zidon, 1984).
  4. Task complexity: If the task covered by the goal is highly complex, it is best to have multiple goals to cover the completion of the task and to break down the complexity. As the complexity of the task increases, the performance can decrease if a person is unable to find a strategy to meet the goal (Locke and Latham, 2002).
  5. Feedback: Timely and accurate feedback helps make goal setting more effective, but only when challenging and specific goals are set. Figure 14 (Latham and Locke, 1991) shows the performance of study participants who were asked to solve as many problems in a minute as they could. Those who set hard goals and received feedback (left side) performed better than those who were given feedback but had not set goals (right side).

Figure 14

Adapted from "A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance" by Edwin Locke & Gary Latham. (1991). The Academy of Management Review. 16. 

Are Financial Incentives Effective Motivators?

Another motivational tool we use at is financial incentives. Yes, that means we pay students for performance!

Why do we do this?

Research suggests that financial incentives, when properly implemented, positively impact student achievement.

For example, Vi-Nhuan Le (2015) conducted an international meta-analysis of the effects of incentives on student performance in mathematics, reading, and language development. He found that across 18 studies overall achievement was positively impacted by monetary incentives, even though the studies spanned a range of locations, student ages, and designs.

When Are Financial Incentives Effective?

The key reason that research on the performance impact of financial incentives is mixed is that the effectiveness of the incentives is highly dependent on the design and implementation of those incentives.

In a comprehensive study of 250 US schools in 4 low-performing districts, Roland Fryer (2011) discovered that incentives are more likely to increase student achievement when the rewards are given for inputs, such as the number of books read, rather than outputs, such as reading test scores.

Fryer tested the impacts of input incentives in two school districts, and output incentives in two other districts. Students who were paid for inputs achieved test scores or reading comprehension scores that were significantly better than the control groups. On the other hand, students who were paid for their outputs, like grades or standardized test scores, did not see any significant improvements.

Allan and Fryer (2011) also discovered that students are highly price-sensitive! In Fryer’s study in Houston, researchers raised the prizes for each math objective from $2 to $4, and then again to $6. Each time they raised the prizes, the students put in even more effort and their achievement increased even further! (Figure 15).

Figure 15

Adapted from "The Powers and Pitfalls of Education Incentives" by B.M Allan & R. Fryer, 2011, The Hamilton Project Discussion Paper 2011-07, pg 20.

What Happens When Incentives End?

One of the most frequent pushbacks to monetary incentives is the belief that incentives can lower the intrinsic motivation to study such that after the incentives end, performance will plummet.

In reality, this has not been borne out by research.

In Fryer’s (2011) studies, a survey that evaluated any change on intrinsic motivation showed that incentive programs had little effect on students’ intrinsic motivation.

Eisenberger and Cameron (1996) reviewed 100 studies of incentives and concluded that the only rewards that reliably had a negative impact on intrinsic motivation were rewards that were granted even when students didn’t reach their goals. For example, enrolling every student in a reading program and rewarding them whether or not they finished any books.

Goswami and Urminsky (2017) also re-examined the negative view of incentives on intrinsic motivation. They noticed that earlier studies only measured the behavior of study participants immediately after the incentives were withdrawn, and did not examine how that behavior might change over time. They designed an experiment to follow the behavior of participants for a longer period of time than previous studies had done.

In the study, participants could choose to solve a math problem or watch a video. They were asked to do this 30 times, through 3 rounds of 10 problems. For the second round, some participants were given rewards to solve the math problems. In the third round, the rewards were then withdrawn.

The percentage of participants who chose to solve math problems after the rewards were withdrawn was predicted to be much lower in the 3rd round. However, the researchers found that although there was a big drop in engagement immediately after the incentives ended, engagement soon returned to a post-reward baseline that was equal to or exceeded the initial baseline. Incentivizing task completion did not affect the long-term intrinsic motivation to perform a task!

What are Social Motivators?

The community allows Gifted and Talented students to connect with like-minded peers to learn from each other, support each other, and inspire each other. Communities are an essential part of for two reasons:

  1. Student well-being
  2. Academic achievement

First and foremost, communities can increase students’ sense of belonging and well-being.

The feeling of belonging and being accepted is a fundamental human need (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). In an educational context, it basically means that students need to engage with other students and feel that others care about them and want them to be there.

Research shows that a sense of belonging and peer support are important for maintaining students’ mental health and well-being (McBeath, Drysdale, and Bohn, 2018). Receiving peer support in school is positively related to well-being and helps prevent student burnout (Räisänen, 2020; Jacobs and Dodd, 2003; Lin and Huang, 2012).

Ryzin, Gravely and Roseth (2007) conducted a 5-month study of 283 secondary school students in the United States and found that peer support is essential for school academic engagement, and that there is also a separate direct link between peer-related belongingness (i.e., peer support) and positive adjustment (mental well-being, or “hope”), as shown in Figure 16.

Figure 16

Adapted from "Autonomy, Belongingness, and Engagement in School as Contributors to Adolescent Psychological Well-Being" by M.J. Ryzin, A. Gravely & C.J. Roseth, 2009, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 1-12.

Students do not need to have face-to-face interactions however to feel that they belong. Research shows that online peer support is also effective for improving student well-being. Drysdale, McBeath, and Callaghan (2021) conducted a trial on the feasibility and impact of online peer support for higher education students. They found that online peer support is just as effective as in-person peer support for improving well-being.

In addition to increasing student welfare, communities can even improve student achievement! Social integration and peer support have been shown to motivate learning and help students achieve more academically. Furrer and Skinner (2003) found that children's sense of relatedness is vital to their academic motivation from 3rd to 6th grade. Altermatt (2016) found that the quality of college students’ peer relationships can play an important role in predicting their academic performance.