Emotion in Motivation – The Missing Piece?

There is still a lot we don’t know about motivation. In his book ‘Motivated Teaching’, Peps Mccrea reminds us that “the mechanics of motivation are not only highly complex, they are also largely invisible” and he urges us to do all we can as teachers to tease out the most powerful insights that persist across the field and codify them in ways that we can use in schools “on a hot Friday afternoon”.

Mccrea describes motivation in a way that helps us begin to codify what it is. He says that to understand motivation, we must first understand attention, and he explains that “attention is the gatekeeper of learning” and that “what we attend to is ultimately what we learn”. So, if motivation is a system for allocating attention, then it becomes something tangible – something we can influence as teachers. We can use the curriculum, lesson planning or activities to ensure that our students attend to the right things in the right way.

He goes on to say that allocating attention is a largely unconscious process. Students aren’t aware they are making decisions about what they give their attention to because they typically use short cuts, or heuristics, like deferring to previous success rates or by looking at what others are doing.

Mccrea describes motivation as being like an investment engine. Students will decide whether the task in hand is worth their time based on three things: 1) the value they put on the task; 2) their chance of success; 3) the time and effort they will have to invest to be successful. Students will probably take a few seconds to make these judgements so no matter what we try to do to secure their attention, it is possible that they might have already made up their minds.

In his book, Mccrea goes on to introduce five drivers which help us to think about how we can build motivation in our students. These drivers are brilliant and I based my Educating Northants presentation on how I used them to create the conditions for motivated teaching in my own classroom.

Core Drivers
Secure success Get pupils to a high success rate to look back on; frame what success means and help them attribute it accurately; pre-empt failure.
Run routines Make the process of learning easy, whilst keeping the content of learning challenging; script chains and cues; stick to it.
Nudge norms Elevate the visibility of desirable norms; amplify peer approval; emphasise what you want to happen, not what you don’t.
Build belonging Signal the status of all pupils in your class; develop a unifying purpose and identify common ground; earn and keep trust.
Boost buy-in Expose the benfits of the choice you make for your pupils; provide opportunities for them to opt in; invest in building metamotivation.
From Motivated Teaching by Peps Mccrea (2020)

But now I find myself taking a step back and thinking more about what it is that makes students reach those decisions about effort and ability. Those attitudes like I can’t do maths; I am useless at spelling; I have no chance of passing that exam can become so deeply ingrained in students’ minds, that it becomes very difficult for teachers to do anything about them. Mccrea says that as humans our decision making is fuelled by emotions, and it is this connection between motivation and emotion that I wish we talked about more.

In  The Crucial Role of Motivation and Emotion in Classroom Learning (2010) Boekaerts begins her paper by explaining why motivation and emotion are essential to education: “because, together they ensure that students acquire new knowledge and skills in a meaningful way”.  She tells us that students will inevitably encounter situations in the classroom that they find hard or boring and it us up to teachers to adapt the curriculum so that students feel the learning is worth their attention.

She also explains that many theories of learning and instruction give a hat tip to motivation, but rarely do they integrate motivational constructs

“Competence models mainly focus on the domain-specific process that they need to acquire, and cognitive and metacognitive processes that they need to access in order to become strategic learners.”

What this doesn’t account for, she suggests, is the fact that all students come to learning differently. “Not all students acquire knowledge in the same way, and they differ in the value they attach to new knowledge and newly-acquired strategies”. She goes on to say that if students’ cognitions and emotions about learning are not factored in, these models will not be able to adequately represent the dynamics of the learning process.

Motivational Beliefs

Motivational beliefs are the feelings that students hold about themselves as learners. Students often come to us with pre-conceived ideas about how good they are or how likely they are to succeed. This is crucial because students use these motivational beliefs to give meaning to learning tasks. These beliefs fall into 5 categories:

1Self-efficacy The beliefs they hold about their own capability to do something.
2Outcome expectationThat certain actions will lead to success and others will lead to failure.
3Goal orientationThe purpose of the learning activity.
4Value judgementsHow interesting or boring activities are.
5AttributionsPerceived causes of success and failure.
From ‘The Crucial Role of Motivation and Emotion in Classroom Learning’ By Monique Boekaerts (2010)

Motivational beliefs can be positive or negative. Students are influenced by the climate for learning and the behaviours of others; these things shape the choices they make as well as how much effort they will invest and how long they will persist in the face of difficulties.

While we often think about students’ starting points from a cognitive or academic point of view, how often do we stop to consider their emotional starting points or their readiness to learn? As teachers, how can we pre-empt these beliefs and plan learning to challenge some of the notions that students hold about their ability or likelihood of success?

Managing Emotions

Boakaerts tells us that he word “emotion” refers to a wide range of affective processes. There are six primary emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. Others have identified secondary emotions such as envy, hope, sympathy, gratitude, regret, pride, disappointment, relief, hopelessness, shame, guilt, embarrassment and jealousy.

Fridja (1986) argued that emotions have two major functions. Firstly, to give warning signals that tell us we are facing either a highly valuable situation or a threatening one. This creates a sense of urgency as we know that the situation needs our immediate attention. The second function is to prepare us to act swiftly in response. These emotions create physical hormonal responses like the heart beating faster, breathing heavier, or hands feeling clammy, etc.

Some emotions, such as anger, relief and joy, are short lived and have little significance for future learning. Other emotions, such as shame and hopelessness, have enduring relevance to classroom learning because they are tagged to previous situations and can be activated when a student is confronted with a similar task in the future. I can think of many students I have taught across the years who fit this profile: students who felt they couldn’t face lessons because they had a bad experience in the past.

This makes me wonder, as teachers, how tuned in are we to the previous experiences that our students have had? Are we aware that the success and failure they experience in their lessons has the power to make or break their confidence and perception of self? Do we create the conditions for students to tell us about these experiences or do we leave them to take root in the student’s mind where they can sit dangerously invisible?

Coming to Learning

When students are faced with a new learning task, Boekaerts suggests that they do three things in the following order:

  1. Observe specific features of the task and its educational context: how relevant or interesting is the task? What outcome sis expected? What is the purpose? Is it worth my time? What will help me to succeed or fail in this task?
  2. They activate domain specific knowledge and relative metacognitive strategies: this will make me better at this? Will I feel more confident than before? Will I be more competent as a result?
  3. They activate motivational beliefs and regulation strategies: Am I interested in this? Will it be hard? Can I adapt as the demands of learning change? Is it worth it?

This approach quickly helps students to determine how they feel about the learning task; how committed they are to dealing with it and how they will regulate their motivation throughout learning. But what if their emotional responses are:

  1. This is pointless.
  2. There is no use in trying.
  3. I am not clever enough.

Should we be considering what mechanisms we have in school to either pre-empt these negative responses or deal with them sensitively as soon as they happen? How often do we mistake these emotional reactions for poor attitudes or bad behaviour?

My Takeaways

So where does that leave us? For me, the following points provide a summary:

As teachers, we have it in our power to make learning meaningful. The way we plan the curriculum, deliver lessons and engage students in learning tasks is crucial to the way they perceive themselves as learners. For me, this is a hopeful message and reminds us that we can influence motivation in our classrooms to some extent.

When it comes to understanding motivation, we have barely begun to scratch the surface. This is a complex topic and while many models of instruction allude to motivation, even within these models, there isn’t enough of a spotlight on how emotions influence motivation. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach because all students come to learning in different ways.

Students’ perceptions of themselves as learners are crucial. The meaning they attach to their classroom experiences – their successes and failures – can change how they feel about future learning encounters.

The learning process is social. Students observe their teachers and peers and what they see or hear them saying about the learning can also have a significant impact. See Mccrea’s work on nudging norms for more on this.

All learning is a personal and emotional experience. Some emotions can be fleeting or short-lived and others can stay with students long after the event. Lingering feelings of success can be great, but a lot of unspoken damage can be done when failure stays as the overriding memory.

Writing this blog has helped me get some of my thinking in order, at least for now. I plan to write a follow up post where I’ll suggest some strategies to address the questions raised here. Hopefully, this is a way of getting the conversation started.


Boekaerts, M (2010) The Crucial Role of Motivation and Emotion in Classroom Learning’ OECD. Available at:

Frijda, N. H, Mesquita, B. (2000) Beliefs Through Emotions. Available at:

Mccrea (2020) Motivated Teaching. Peps Mccrea.

Nuthall, G. (2007) The Hidden Life of Learners. NZCER Press.

One reply on “Emotion in Motivation – The Missing Piece?”

Totally agree Esther , it comes down to investing in your relationship with the student, getting to know them as people not just as learners . Time spent doing that is never wasted, and it is a two way street. They should be allowed to learn about you as a person In the same way. This can help them to understand how to manage situations and their emotional response to them as they relate to you as a person who has similar experience, rather than just as an educator .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.