Enhancing Students' Motivation to Learn Through Positive Psychology

1 November 2020

One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is learning how to engage and motivate our students to learn. As an educator for more than 10 years, I have leveraged on various teaching and learning strategies to motivate my students, such as blended learning, student-centric and experiential activities, games, encouragement, incentives and the list goes on.

Ever since I studied positive psychology in 2018, I have been thinking how I could leverage positive psychology so that students are able to unlock their inner motivation and desire to learn. A eureka moment came one day when I pondered this question, “Are my students even aware of their own motivational status to learning in the first place?" And unknowingly, I started to wonder what possible motivations they may have behind their learning. I started asking these questions:

1. Are my students intrinsically motivated to learn for the sake of enjoyment and appreciation of knowledge?

2. Are my students extrinsically motivated to learn in order not to disappoint their parents or hoping to gain intangible extrinsic rewards such as praise and peer recognition?

3. Are my students completely ‘a-motivated’ to learn?


Motivation is one of the significant psychological concepts that is inextricably linked to learning and performance outcomes. Advocating a school culture of self-directed learners is of paramount importance as it prepares students for lifelong learning. To address the aim of developing self-directed students, there is a need to investigate plausible interventions that might improve students’ motivation levels to learning.

Teachers usually have no trouble recognising motivational problems in students, such as missing lessons, late submission of assignments and homework, reluctance to take part in activities and indifference to opportunities offered to students. How can we then create a more supportive and holistic learning culture that increases students’ engagement and motivation to learn?

I would like to propose the following 3-step framework that can help students become aware and hopefully enhance their motivation to learn:

1. Being aware of motivations to learn

The self-determination continuum theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) may seem difficult for students to understand. What I did was to provide real-life scenarios of people feeling a-motivated (e.g. someone lacking the motivation to exercise), extrinsically motivated (e.g. the desire to clock 10,000 steps every day in exchange for incentives) or intrinsically motivated (e.g. participating in a sport because it's fun rather than doing it to compete and win an award).

This will help students better understand the various motivations along the 'motivation' spectrum and more importantly – to relate them to different domains of their lives where they feel “non-motivated”, “extrinsically motivated” and “intrinsically motivated”. It will take time for them to reflect introspectively and slowly make sense of their motivations.

2. Being aware of ‘thinking traps’ to learning

I asked my students whether any of the above thinking traps resonate with them during the course of their studies in the past or even at the present moment.

3. To apply positive reframing and character strengths to enhance motivation to learn

Positive reframing is the ability to perceive something viewed as negative in a positive light. Several studies have reported that positive reframing correlates with lower depression and greater sense of gratitude in human beings (Kraft, Claiborn, & Dowd, 1985; Wang, Lambert, & Lambert, 2007).

Although there were no reported studies that investigated the effect of positive reframing on motivational levels in students’ learning, there were studies that discussed how positive reframing is commonly used as a stress-coping mechanism for university students or students with special needs in both Western and Asian context.

To translate this to some form of experiential learning, you may gather students in groups to brainstorm on possible ways to dispute these thinking traps that hinder learning, reframe the situation in a positive light and discuss how their unique VIA character strengths play a role in overcoming challenges in learning. Another interesting activity you could consider is asking students to collectively list down how they can find meaning behind learning for each of the subjects that they study in school.

The intent of this activity is to assess whether students are able to apply the theories of motivation, positive reframing and character strengths on real-life challenges that students commonly face in school.

Final thoughts

As much as educators aim to maximise students’ motivation in learning, it is important to recognise that amotivation and extrinsic motivation exist. Hence, the outcome that I hope to achieve is for my students to first gain awareness of domains of their student lives where they are losing motivation and take 'baby steps' by reframing them from an extrinsic motivation perspective. For students who anchor their studies primarily on extrinsic motivators, I hope that this intervention can help them relook learning from an intrinsic motivation perspective.

This 3-step framework was applied on my students who are in tertiary education (aged 17 - 20). Hence, it may not be as effective if it was implemented on other age groups.


Al-Dubai, S. A., Al-Naggar, R. A., Alshagga, M. A., & Rampal, K. G. (2011). Stress and coping strategies of students in a medical faculty in Malaysia. The Malaysian journal of medical sciences : MJMS, 18 (3), 57–64.

Cavazos, J., Johnson, M. B., & Sparrow, G. S. (2010). Overcoming Personal and Academic Challenges: Perspectives From Latina/o College Students. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 9(4), 304–316. https://doi.org/10.1177/1538192710380744

Kraft, R. G., Claiborn, C. D., & Dowd, E. T. (1985). Effects of positive reframing and paradoxical directives in counselling for negative emotions. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 32, 617- 621.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Well-Being. American Psychologist. 55(1), 68-78.)

Wang, X. Q., Lambert, C. E., & Lambert, V. A. (2007). Anxiety, depression, and coping strategies in post-hysterectomy Chinese women prior to dis- charge. International Nursing Review, 54, 271-279.

Williams, H., Palmer, S., & Edgerton, N. (2018). Cognitive behavioural coaching. In E. Cox, T. Bachkirova, & D. Clutterbuck (Eds.), The Complete Handbook of Coaching (3rd ed., pp. 17–34). London: SAGE Publications.

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