Close the Stable Doors: Effects of Motivation and Engagement on Learner Achievement?  

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

A very popular one-liner, used by parents, teachers, politicians, and also educational scientists is that “THE current problem in education is a lack of learner motivation”. In other words: learners find education boring, not appealing, unattractive and that’s why they don’t achieve their full potential.

Concepts such as motivation and engagement are often perceived as keys to improving education. The trend is to assume that if we’re able to increase learners’ motivation, then they’ll perform better and achieve more. According to Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory it’s even better if that motivation is intrinsic (in contrast to externally driven – extrinsic – motivation, such as rewards).

Let’s stay on that train of thought. Self-determination proponents argue that, as long as you can make sure that a learner is more engaged in learning then (s)he will learn more effectively. One example of a popular measure to increase motivation is implementing discovery learning (also known as inquiry-based learning, enquiry learning, etc.). The assumption is that this approach triggers curiosity and is therefore motivating which in turn will lead to more and better learning. Other examples that are ‘hip and trendy’ are using either more ICT and/or multimedia inside and outside of the classroom. The current hype with iPad schools is a good example of this. The idea is that implementing these tools and media within lessons make the task more realistic or authentic and engaging. All of these approaches are attempts to increase learners’ motivation and engagement.

The question is: Does it?

Let’s kick it off with engagement. Andrew McConney and his colleagues studied more than 41,000 fifteen-year olds in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. First, they determined if the curriculum in physics as offered to these learners had a low or high level of discovery learning. Then, they compared the learners’ (1) scientific literacy[1]. They also looked at (2) interest in physics and (3) engagement in physics.

The researchers were investigating the, by many seen as ‘self-evident truth’ that engagement would lead to better learning; here in terms of scientific literacy. They, however, found that learners who were offered the discovery learning approach showed an above average level of engagement and interest, but a below average level of scientific literacy. In other words, the learners perceived the discovery learning approach as interesting and they were very engaged in their learning. However, they learned less than average. In contrast, learners who followed the ‘boring’ learning approach, showed less than average interest and engagement, but a higher than average scientific literacy!

McConney and colleagues conclude: “These results seems to be an infringement with the prevailing orthodoxy in the educational world that the more discovery-based learning is, the higher chances are that learners acquire a strong scientific literacy.”

Repeat after us: This (large!) study has concluded that engagement does not influence learning achievements positively. That’s a bit of a shake-up and we’re not there yet.

What about intrinsic motivation? Gabrielle Garon-Carrier and colleagues [3] followed about 1500 Canadian elementary school learners to research the relationship between intrinsic motivation and achievement in maths. The study was longitudinal; that is the researchers analysed the same variables (intrinsic motivation and maths achievement) repeatedly over a period of 4 years. In this study, Garon et al. also took gender and non-verbal cognitive abilities (e.g., spatial awareness) into consideration.

Their hypothesis was that the relationship would be reciprocal (two-way). In other words, intrinsic motivation for math would influence achievement in maths and vice versa. However, surprisingly they found that maths achievement had a significant positive effect on intrinsic motivation but NOT the other way around! Intrinsic motivation did not have any effect on maths achievements whatsoever. This was true for both boys and girls. So it seems that achievement increased intrinsic motivation but again, not vice versa: motivation didn’t affect achievement.

The researchers state that their results contradict the generally accepted conception that intrinsic motivation naturally leads to better achievement (in this case in maths). The authors, therefore, suggest that we need to question the underlying theoretical principles of self-determination theory. In contrast to this theory, Garon and colleagues have shown that intrinsic motivation doesn’t necessarily translate into better learning achievement. The second ‘self-evident truth’ seems to have a question mark now as well.

Perhaps it’s about time to think about and thoroughly research these ‘golden rules’ that we all like to believe so much. And not only that, we even implement them in education without carefully considering the opposing forces.

P.S. The studies discussed in this blog show that learners don’t have to be engaged to achieve well and that they become motivated if they achieve well. Professor Monique Volman stated in her inaugural address on being installed as professor of education: “A learner doesn’t come to school motivated. A learner comes to school to become motivated.” We don’t know if she meant what we are saying; we’ll leave it up to you to guess what she meant.


Garon-Carrier, G.,Boivin, M.,Guay, F.,Kovas, Y.,Dionne, G.,Lemelin, J-P.,Séguin, J.,Vitaro, F., &Tremblay, R. (2016).Intrinsic motivation and achievement in mathematics in elementary school: A longitudinal investigation of their association. Child Development, 87(1), 165–175.

McConney, A., Oliver, M. C., Woods-McConney, A., Schibeci, R., & Maor, D. (2014). Inquiry, engagement, and literacy in science: A retrospective, cross-national analysis using PISA 2006. Science Education, 98, 963–980. doi: 10.1002/sce.21135

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2002). Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Determination Research (pp. 3-34). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.


[1] According to PISA this is the skill to use scientific knowledge, ask questions, and draw founded conclusions with the goal to understand and support decision-making with regards to the natural environment and the changes that human beings have applied to it. Pfew. For a more complete and complex definition see point 15 in