For some, school is an exciting place to learn, but for others, not so much. Educational psychologists are finding that some children gradually lose interest in school, viewing school as boring, tedious and irrelevant to their lives. From making playmates in kindergarten, to new friends in primary schools, to prepping for college in secondary school – some students’ motivation to perform well in school drops as they take steps toward these milestones. If students think that the material they are learning is boring or irrelevant, they won’t work hard to master the subject matter. This attitude poses a great risk to a student’s future as it impacts a student’s chances of obtaining meaningful employment. Research has found that in a worldwide academic assessment, North American students are lagging behind in academic rankings compared to other developed countries. And although high school graduation rates are on an increase, many students do not attain a college degree that is often deemed necessary by the job market.​

Educational psychologists have been studying ways to increase student engagement and motivation. Carol Dweck, at Stanford University, reminds us that a student’s mindset, when approaching educational material, is very important. Students with a “fixed mindset” believe that traits such as intelligence are fixed. Hence a failure or below par performance is viewed by them as inherent to their ability, and unchangeable even with great effort. This in turn leads them to lose motivation because they see no chance for improvement. Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that their traits are fluid and flexible. Thus even at times of failure, they are not discouraged. They view learning, where mistakes are to be expected, as a rewarding experience. They believe that with effort, they will achieve success. Dweck found that the way we praise a child of 1-3 years old impacts the child’s mindset. When parents praise their child’s inherent ability, the child is likely to develop a fixed mindset. When parents praise their child’s efforts, the child is likely to develop a growth mindset. Students become engaged if they expect that they will master a task. The expectation that achievement is possible gives them intrinsic motivation for what they are learning. If achievement seems out of reach, students will stop trying to perform well.

Harackiewicz, at the University of Wisconsin, asked students to write about their learning experiences. Those who wrote about the usefulness of their science courses, compared to a control group who was asked to summarize what they learned, improved their grades and their interest in future science courses. Students also boosted their self-confidence by writing about the traits that they valued in themselves. These affirmations led to an improvement in grades, especially for those who were deemed likely by their teachers to do poorly.

Wigfield, at the University of Maryland, found that students need to have some degree of autonomy in order to become strongly motivated. Giving students choices as to activities they want to do promotes intrinsic motivation to successfully carry out those activities. Creating close connections between students and teachers promotes strong teacher-student relationships that can aid a child, not only in terms of academics but also personal growth. A positive student-teacher relationship is key to engaging a student. Teachers and parents should refrain from pointing out differences between children as it makes students focus on comparing their growth with others. It incorrectly promotes the idea of having to trump peers in a possibly negative way.

In terms of teaching system and curriculum, Anderman, at Ohio State University, found that a mastery-based system should be used. This focuses on making sure that students learn the content of what they are taught rather than focusing on grades. Emphasis is placed on the process of learning, not just the results. When teachers approach the material in the context of test-preparation compared to focusing on the subject matter, the students retain less information. Focusing on the subject matter rather than grades lessens cheating on tests. Another effective technique for the motivation of students is for teachers to set short-term attainable goals. Giving students small chunks of material to master helps them to build confidence in themselves. In addition, these small experiences of accomplishment paint a picture for them of ultimate success.


Anderman, E. M., Cupp, P. K., Lane, D. R., Zimmerman, R., Gray, D. L., & O’Connell, A. (2011). Classroom goal structures and HIV and pregnancy prevention education in rural high school health classrooms. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(4), 904-922.Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent praise to 1- to 3- year olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development, 84(5), 1526-1541.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Giffen, C. J., Blair, S. S., Rouse, D. I., & Hyde, J. S. (2014). Closing the social class achievement gap for first-generation students in undergraduate biology. J Educ Psychology, 106(2), 375-389.

Harris, K. R., Graham, S., & Adkins, M. (2015). Practice-based professional development and self-regulated strategy development for tier 2, at-risk writers in second grade. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 40, 5-16.

Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326, 1410-1412.

Lane, K. L., Harris, K., Graham, S, Driscoll, S., Sandmel, K., Morphy, P., Herbert, M., House, E., & Schatschneider, C. (2011). Self-regulated strategy development at tier 2 for second-grade students with writing and behavioral difficulties: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 4(4), 322-353. 

Vandell, D. L., Shernoff, D. J., Pierce, K. M., Bold, D. M., Dadisman, K., & Brown, B. B. (2005). Activities, engagement, and emotion in after-school programs (and elsewhere). New Directions for Youth Development, 105, 121-129.

Commentary: As Dr. Latham eloquently captures through the literature review, the downfall of students who adopt a “fixed” mindset lose interest and motivation. As educators, we want to be mindful of the same possibility, as to our view of our students, with regard to their potential. It is rarely, if ever, that our students, within career education, do not succeed because of aptitude. Typically, it is because they lack effort and willingness. We cannot take their lack of motivation in our class or toward our subject personally. Rather, consider the possibility that the Habits, Attitudes, and Beliefs holding them back are the result of a “fixed” mindset from long ago.

Scott Fitzgibbon, Ed.D.