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Primary school student raising her hand.

Unlocking the inner motivation of student learners

Some people know from a very young age exactly what they want to do in life. From their childhood years, through adolescence and into adulthood, they devote much of their time to learning about, practising and enjoying this activity, whether it is painting or physics or football. 

Johnmarshall Reeve was one of those people. His passion, though, was rather obscure. He didn’t want to be a firefighter or an archaeologist; he wanted to understand what motivates human beings.  

“Ever since I was really young, I was always interested in motivation – it’s always been there,” he says. “Even at school, I always looked for the opportunity to understand motivation. How can I study it? Who can I learn from? My whole life, I’ve just been looking for a place to put myself so I can pursue this deep interest in motivation.”
Born and raised in Tennessee, Johnmarshall Reeve pursued a master’s degree in psychology at Texas Christian University at a time when motivational science was still a niche area of study. Thankfully, he had a supportive supervisor who encouraged him to follow his interests. He recalls: “So my professor shows up one day and he says, ‘Here’s what I want you to do this semester: Find an article and a lab study and replicate it. That’s your project, replicate an experiment.’” 

The study that he and his lab partner chose was by an experimental psychologist named Edward Deci from the University of Rochester. Along with his colleague Richard Ryan, Deci developed Self-Determination Theory (SDT), providing empirical support for the notion that people could be naturally motivated to do things without external reinforcements. 

When Ed Deci travelled to Texas to meet the young researchers who had replicated his study, Johnmarshall Reeve was beside himself.  “I was like, ‘Wow, this is a great way to spend my time. This is a worthwhile thing to pursue.’ So I kept studying this theory of motivation and I’ve just never stopped.” 

Almost four decades on, SDT is the world’s most cited theory of motivation, and Professor Johnmarshall Reeve is one of its leading scholars, with a focus on applying its principles to educational settings. 

Children raising hands in primary school classroom

He now works alongside Professor Richard Ryan at ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, and in mid-2022, published Supporting Students’ Motivation: Strategies for Success, a multi-authored book that highlights the importance of teachers’ motivating styles to the goal of supporting student learners. 

“The more I do this, the more important I recognise it is,” says Professor Reeve, who has published more than 80 academic articles and authored five books on various aspects of human motivation and emotion. 

“My message is that teachers’ motivating style – their overall tone and behaviour when trying to motivate students – should be at the top of the list of every teacher and principal because it makes the most difference in a classroom of anything else we can identify. A good motivating style will transform not only the life of the individual student, but also of the classroom and the whole school.” 

Aiming for engagement

At the heart of this approach is an understanding that all students naturally possess a full repertoire of inner motivational resources. 

A teacher’s challenge is therefore not necessarily to ‘motivate’ students; rather, it is to encourage and support the internal motivation they already have. 

“I think the default position or idea is that students are generally passive or unwilling to put out a lot of effort until you motivate them through an incentive or encouragement or praise or something like that,” Professor Reeve says. “But that is all wrong.”

This classic mistake leads many teachers to fall into the trap of using rewards and punishments – sticker charts, behaviour cards and the like – as a method for both motivating and controlling students. In Supporting Students’ Motivation, Professor Reeve and his co-authors cite research showing that almost two-thirds of teachers use these external reinforcements, while less than one in 10 use the much more effective method of explaining the relevance of the learning activity to students’ lives. 

“I’ve been in Australian schools and I can confirm that often I’ll go in there and see the little bag of tokens, and the type of rewards and punishment-laced language that goes with that,” says Professor Reeve, who moved to Sydney from Korea in early 2019. 

In recent years, many schools have moved to using class management apps that assign students a cartoonish monster. Points are awarded when students do the right thing, like tidying up after craft activities, and deducted for misbehaviour, like talking out of turn or handing in late homework.  

Repeated studies have shown that this teaching style, which leans towards incentives and threats, often backfires. Sure, if you dangle a prize in front of a group of primary school students — a gold star, a lolly or even a cheer — it may just capture their attention. But there are potentially some serious side effects.

“If the student is suddenly only interested in the reward, their enjoyment for the activity is diminished and you’ve totally messed up the motivational aspect of what the person’s trying to do,” Professor Reeve adds. 

“But when you ask teachers, ‘Is this effective? Do you like the token economy or the sticker chart?’ Often they say, ‘Yeah, because the students do what I tell them to do.’ Well, we should not be aiming for temporary compliance; instead, we should be aiming for long-term engagement. If you provide a supportive and satisfying classroom environment, you’re more likely to get a high level of engagement – in the short-term and the long-term.”

A better way

If rewards and punishments are so ineffective for motivating students, why do teachers continue to use them? 

After years of observing classrooms all over the world, Johnmarshall Reeve’s honest assessment is that most teachers “simply don’t know how to support engagement and interest, so they go with the cultural norm”. 

“Unfortunately, the cultural norm in schools is that if you want to motivate students, you reward them, and if you want to control their behaviour, you punish them,” he says. “So that’s what teachers continue to do, even though we have years of research showing there’s a better way.” 

The overarching goal of Supporting Students’ Motivation is to help teachers to learn how to provide instruction in ways that will be motivationally enriching for their students.

The origin of this endeavour goes back to an experiment that the five authors (Johnmarshall Reeve, Richard Ryan, Sung Hyeon Cheon, Lennia Matos and Haya Kaplan) conducted at a high school in Iowa some 20 years ago. Having spent a week observing the teachers and assessing how motivationally supportive they were, the researchers randomly assigned half of them to participate in a workshop designed to help them develop a more effective motivating style. 

Children in primary school classroom

In the two decades since, a refined version of these workshops has been delivered to thousands of teachers in hundreds of schools, and the positive findings of that initial experiment have been replicated many times over with both experimental and longitudinal data.   

The first thing that Professor Reeve and his colleagues communicate in their workshops is that teachers need to move away from a controlling style of teaching, towards a style that supports the autonomy of their students. 

“We help them to stop being so controlling,” says Professor Reeve, who has himself delivered workshops to teachers in 14 countries. “Stop with the threats and the points and the punishments and the timeouts, and let’s give students a supportive environment where their inner motivation can thrive. Take the students’ perspective, find what motivates them and design your lessons around those interests, and explain why an activity is important or relevant to a student.” 

The five authors have observed that when teachers first hear about this style of motivating, they often approach it with caution and concern. They might think that taking the student’s perspective or supporting their autonomy equates to permissiveness or looseness.

As teachers experiment with autonomy-supportive strategies, however, they typically have validating classroom experiences. 

“You start with perspective taking – trying to see and understand the situation from the student’s point of view – and when you do this, you realise that, yes, they do have all these personal interests, goals and strivings,” Professor Reeve says. 

“That’s attractive, so you want to support and grow it, and that’s where we step in. We’re not trying to change you as a teacher. We don’t want you to give up your authority, your leadership, goals, priorities and standards. We can help teachers with the ‘how to’ of improving their motivating style.”

Pursuing a passion

As for Johnmarshall Reeve, even decades after he first tapped into his innate drive to pursue his interest in motivational psychology, he remains determined to keep studying, keep learning, and keep teaching the finer points of human motivation and emotion. 

You might say that he’s innately motivated to share the benefits of a good motivating style. 

“Devoting my life to human motivation has been a richly rewarding experience, and I think that teachers are richly rewarded for the effort of going through and transforming and improving their motivating style,” he says. 

“When we see this transformation happen with individual teachers, the interesting thing is that they take this from their classrooms and into their homes, and they find that they’re now a better parent, they’re now a better spouse, and they use these skills to live a better life. That’s the ultimate goal here, to meet our psychological needs and improve overall wellbeing, to feel alive and energetic and satisfied and motivated. That is something that has a great benefit to society as a whole.” 

Johnmarshall Reeve is a Professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. He researches human motivation and emotion, particularly teacher motivating styles, student agentic engagement, and the neuroscience of intrinsic motivation. He is the lead author of Supporting Students’ Motivation: Strategies for Success.

Professor Johnmarshall Reeve

 Learn more about ACU.

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS registered provider: 00004G | PRV12008