Beliefs Come First: Untangling the Knot of Student Motivation

By Daniel Greene, Program Associate for the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) at Stanford University

Student motivation is a big and messy topic. Imagine trying to create a causal model for why students do what they do.
You will quickly end up with a complex system made up of goals, beliefs, behaviors, emotions, and the environment — all interconnected in a giant knot of feedback loops.

What strand do we pull first to untangle the knot and unlock student motivation?

Researchers and educators tend to pull on different parts of the knot depending on their background. For example, work, sports, and industrial psychologists typically focus on the performance benefits of goals. Their rationale is that the right goals orient students’ efforts in productive directions (Locke & Latham, 2002). In contrast, many teachers, coaches, and trainers focus on changing behavior first, often through practice and feedback; their rationale being that it is easier to maintain confidence and set goals after mastering basic skills (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012).

These approaches can certainly get results, but there are many ways to untangle this particular knot. When it comes to building student motivation to improve long-term success for as many people as possible, we need to find the fastest, easiest, most effective approaches, and we need them to work in the real world.

I chose to focus my career as a social psychologist primarily on students’ beliefs about learning because I believe that they are a particularly high-leverage point for improving student motivation. Beliefs about learning, also frequently referred to as “learning mindsets” or “academic mindsets” (Yeager et al., 2013), are those beliefs that influence, 1) which academic behaviors students choose to engage in, and 2) how they interpret academic experiences.

Our analogy of the “knot of student motivation” shows up in InsideTrack’s own visual model of what shapes student success. Their “KSABs” model (figure 1) illustrates the knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs necessary to navigate higher education. These elements are all interconnected, but beliefs are positioned in the center to reflect their critical role as the foundation for everything else.

Figure 1: InsideTrack’s Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes and Beliefs model of the elements necessary for student success:

student knowledge, skills and attitudes affect their beliefs

What is it that makes beliefs about learning so powerful in influencing student motivation compared to other strands in the knot?

First, beliefs exist relatively “upstream” of other variables such as emotions, goals, and behaviors. They get set through past experience but then travel across contexts, coloring our interpretation of future experience. They determine which goals we think are valuable and achievable, and they influence our perception of experiences in ways that reinforce our beliefs (Nickerson, 1998). For this reason, beliefs can stick around once they are set — once established, they tend to influence other variables more than they are themselves influenced.

Second, beliefs have the unique property of being true or false. And the beliefs that tend to be maladaptive for academic motivation (e.g., “I can’t possibly do this,” “I don’t fit in here,” or “This is useless for me to learn”) are frequently false. As educators, correcting false beliefs is a core part of our job description. My students may have goals, behaviors, or emotions that I believe are maladaptive, like the goal of avoiding work (Dowson & McInerney, 2001). But I feel an extra obligation to correct student beliefs that are both maladaptive and factually incorrect. For example, the belief that “I’m not a math person” is simply wrong for almost everyone. It is founded on two false beliefs: that math ability is a fixed quantity that is bestowed at birth (Boaler, 2015; Dweck, 2006), and that learning is easy if you’re smart.

Take another look at the KSABs in figure 1. In most cases, it is both true and good for a student to believe that they belong in their academic community, that college is worthwhile, that their efforts to learn and improve will pay off, and people like them — from their background, with their particular demographic profile and personal experiences — can achieve a given goal with proper planning, support and effort.

Finally, beliefs are nicely amenable to scaled research and intervention. Beliefs about learning can often be measured in relatively straightforward self-report survey questions, which are demonstrably powerful predictors of academic success (Paunesku et al., 2015; Yeager et al., 2014). And importantly, the right experiences can shift students’ beliefs in ways that are both more true and more academically positive.

Beliefs about learning are a powerful place to start in untangling the knot of student motivation. We must start by recognizing and believing that beliefs about learning:

  • Are measurable
  • Are changeable
  • Have more or less correct answers
  • Are durable
  • Heavily influence other traits that impact student success

I like to think of beliefs about learning like mental contact lenses for seeing the academic environment. With the right prescription, goals come into focus, obstacles can be identified, and threatening shapes are revealed to be illusions. I’ll provide guidance for educators serious about unlocking student motivation by influencing beliefs with examples of effective interventions and strategies to scale them affordably.

I think that student beliefs, rather than other constructs like goals or behaviors, are a good place to start when trying to improve student motivation. With that in mind, I’d like to offer some suggestions for educators interested in understanding and influencing students’ beliefs about learning.

Seek Understanding

One piece of advice supported by both research and common sense is to first make sure that you really understand the belief yourself. Educators have an ethical responsibility to do their best to equip their students with true beliefs and to avoid unintentionally doing harm.

For example, the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS), an applied research center at Stanford University where I work, has found that many teachers misunderstand the idea of a growth mindset to mean that all you need to succeed is effort. In fact, research has shown that effort isn’t enough – using the right strategies for learning is also crucial (Zimmerman, 1990), and growth mindset research has continually emphasized the importance of effort, strategies, and occasional help-seeking (Dweck, 2007). A one-sided focus on effort can lead students to bang their heads against the wall instead of stepping back to find a way around the problem.

Cultivate Empathy

Empathy can also help us better understand and address beliefs about learning. For example, consider a time in your own life, past or present, when you held a limiting belief. Or imagine how daunting a task or goal would be if you believed that all your efforts would be for naught, or that your teachers and peers expected you to fail. When we take a moment to step into our students’ shoes, we are more likely to find opportunities to create big impact. And our students will be more receptive to our support when they feel our respect and compassion.

At PERTS, we use empathy-focused interviews and focus groups to get a deep sense of student experiences in school. We then use these interviews and focus groups to develop activities that positively influence students’ beliefs about learning in a scalable manner (for more information, see To continue with the “math person” example from part 1, carefully designed writing exercises and classroom activities that speak to students’ real concerns about math can lead them to hold a growth mindset about math ability, which in turn leads to improved academic outcomes (Paunesku et al., 2015; Blackwell et al., 2007).

Be Proactive

Often it can be important to target false and maladaptive beliefs before they become a salient part of students’ academic experiences. Once students have experienced the inevitable bumps and bruises of academic life, and interpreted them as a sign that they are not up to the task, it can be difficult to change their minds. But if we reach students in advance, we can guide them away from the wrong interpretations of struggle.

For example, specific questions can be incorporated into a student onboarding process and used to normalize and minimize potential obstacles to student success. These questions can be delivered through a variety of channels, including one-to-one conversation, intake surveys, or classroom writing exercises. Simply asking incoming college students to reflect on how they will avoid dropping out can help them adopt a more realistic attitude about the risks of dropout and may help encourage them to make contingency plans.

Contextualize and Personalize

InsideTrack trains coaches to facilitate similar interventions with students in context. For example, imagine a student who is preparing for an important exam. During the course of a coaching interaction, the student reveals his/her belief that coaching and studying don’t really make a difference. The coach is then able to intervene in the moment, helping the student to adopt a growth mindset before proceeding with a plan to study for the test. (For another example of how timing and context for such conversations can accelerate student progress, see:

InsideTrack coaches are also keenly aware that failure to address underlying beliefs can exacerbate student frustration and discourage engagement with support resources. For example, before referring a student for academic tutoring, coaches will conduct a thorough assessment for underlying beliefs that could make tutoring less effective. Many frustrating situations for students and educators alike can be avoided this way, and existing academic resources can have a larger effect when students engage with them with the right beliefs already in place.

Examine Your Own Beliefs

Specific exercises and interventions are certainly a big part of the solution, and many can be delivered through virtual or automated methods, but I see them primarily as tools to complement and accelerate progress, not as replacements for human interaction altogether. Highly trained, skilled and engaged educators are our most powerful tool for correcting students’ mistaken beliefs about learning.

With that in mind, I invite you to become aware of the beliefs that you implicitly convey in your own interactions with students. For example, if you are a teacher or mentor, investigate how you deliver critical feedback. Does it convey that mistakes are valuable clues for learning, or does it convey that poor performance is something that is shameful and to be forgotten as quickly as possible? When introducing new material in class, is it presented as something to be “gotten through” with no clear purpose except for doing homework problems? Or is it introduced as a useful step toward accomplishing meaningful activities in the world?

Our expectations of students heavily influence outcomes [Rubie-Davies, Hattie, and Hamilton, 2006]. When educators reflect back to students that they belong, that they are capable of success and worthy of support, and that we expect them to succeed, they become more likely to exceed all expectations. Observing the beliefs that you convey with your own actions as an educator is a difficult and humbling practice. But it is a useful step toward understanding what your students believe about academics.

It is my own belief that any positive changes you make in this area can have a powerful and lasting impact on your students’ lives. This belief keeps me engaged and motivated to continue working to unravel the knot of student motivation.

(For more reading on this topic, I recommend the article “The New Science of Wise Psychological Interventions” by Professor Greg Walton, which can be read here.)

Daniel Greene, Program Associate for the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) at Stanford University

Daniel Greene is a doctoral candidate at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, and a Program Associate at the Project for Education Research that Scales, where he develops and tests social-psychological interventions that improve student motivation and learning outcomes at scale. Daniel is currently investigating how teachers and mentors can convey a growth mindset to their students.


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