Students With a Bigger Purpose Stay Motivated - Digital Promise

Students With a Bigger Purpose Stay Motivated

July 27, 2016 | By

Keeping students motivated is a challenge for educators and parents alike. By now you’re probably familiar with popular strategies such as grit and growth mindset, which are effective but not entirely foolproof in their abilities to enhance student motivation. For example, grit has received criticism for romanticizing hardships (1), while growth mindset is ineffective when implemented incorrectly. One lesser known strategy that can further improve these interventions is purpose for learning.

What is Purpose for Learning?

Developed by University of Texas-Austin psychology professor David Yeager, purpose for learning teaches students to learn with the goal of making a broader, positive impact on the world. For example, students can set goals such as, “gain skills I can use in a job to help others,” and learn material to “become an educated citizen that can contribute to society.” They can then connect these aims with self-focused goals, such as expanding their knowledge of the world or becoming critical thinkers. Doing this encourages students to develop an internal drive, or intrinsic motivation, for learning, and find meaning in mundane schoolwork (2).

Yeager found that low-income high school seniors who cited purposeful goals (similar to those above) as their motives for learning, viewed academic work as more meaningful, and persisted longer at boring tasks in the face of tempting digital distractions compared to students who cited self-oriented goals for learning (e.g., making money, gaining respect) (3).

Students with purpose-driven goals were also more likely to enroll in college after graduation (nearly 64 percent) compared to students who reported other reasons for learning (30 percent). In one scenario, high schoolers wrote testimonials about the importance of learning course material with the intention to make an impact in the world. This practice helped them to internalize these views and increase their GPA scores in STEM classes, particularly among low-performing students (3).

Why does it work?

Research shows that when students learn with compassionate or altruistic intentions, they view their academic work as more meaningful and beneficial (4,5). According to Yeager, this enhances students’ persistence, leading them to process the information more deeply and gain better recall of material (3).

Purpose for learning interventions also work because they are aligned with students’ learning needs. All students, especially adolescents, benefit from having a sense of belonging (6), autonomy in learning (7), and intrinsic motives to learn (6,8)– all of which are keys to student motivation.

The Future of Purpose for Learning

Many unmotivated students are seeking an answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” Purposeful learning encourages them to generate their own answers to this question. However, it remains unknown how this intervention might be adapted for younger students (K-5), and whether it will be as effective for this age group. Also unclear is why it’s more effective for low-performing students than for high-performing students, or how long the positive effects of these interventions can last.

We have much to learn about underlying cognitive changes that might take place as students attach greater meaning to their academic work: Could this shift in learning attitudes and prosocial beliefs help students beyond the classroom? Future work with student populations of varying abilities and ages will help answer these questions.

While growth mindset and persistence practices alone might lead students to expect effort and rigor to be followed by success, a purpose for learning teaches students that effort may not lead to immediate results, but is needed in order to make a greater impact on the world. Since students can’t always be rewarded for their hard work, those who have a greater purpose to learn will have a good reason to stay motivated even when their efforts aren’t followed by rewards and immediate success.

In this way, purpose for learning presents an effective means for fostering a generation of motivated, socially conscious learners.

To read more about the research on Student Motivation, visit the Student Motivation page on our Research Map.

1. Ris, E. W. (2015). Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept. Journal of Educational Controversy, 10(1),
2. Yeager, D. S., & Bundick, M. J. (2009). The role of purposeful work goals in promoting meaning in life and in schoolwork during adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Research, 24, 423– 452. doi:10.1177/0743558409336749
3. Yeager, D. S., Henderson, M. D., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., D’Mello, S., Spitzer, B. J., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(4), 559.
4. Eyler, J. (2002). Reflection: Linking service and learning-linking students and communities. Journal of Social Issues, 58, 517–534. doi:10.1111/1540-4560.00274
5. Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E., Jr. (1999). Where’s the learning in service learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
6. Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes among minority students. Science, 331, 1447–1451. doi:10.1126/science.1198364
7. Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Lens, W., Sheldon, K. M., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Motivating learning, performance, and persistence: The synergistic effects of intrinsic goal contents and autonomy-supportive contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 246–260.
8. Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Deci, E. L. (2006). Intrinsic versus extrinsic goal contents in self-determination theory: Another look at the quality of academic motivation. Educational Psychologist, 41, 19–31. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4101_4


  • This is good stuff. Learning how to motivate and inspire students while educating and preparing them for their futures is critical to the new learning environments we face as educators.

  • According to the 2014 TEL assessment, African American 8th grader science scores were last in the entire nation among all racial categories for both years 2009 and 2011 with scores of 126 and 129. These scores were significantly below Caucasian 8th grade scores, 162 and 163, who led all racial categories by 36 and 34 points. These scores were 6 and 8 points behind the second to last racial category, Hispanic, who scored 132 and 137 points. Further in-depth analysis indicated that in 2009, Sixty-three percent of African Americans were deemed below basic proficiency in science as compared to 22 percent of Caucasians categorized as below basic levels of proficiency. Has this method been used to try to address this deficiencies? If so, what were the results? If not, then why not?

  • Aubrey Francisco says:

    Great question- there is still limited work on how purpose for learning can help address the achievement gap between Caucasian students and underrepresented students. But there is some evidence to suggest that it benefits low-income and racial minority students. In the college enrollment study we mentioned in the blog, the sample consisted of 1,364 high school seniors from low income backgrounds (over 90% received free or subsidized lunch), where 37% were African American, 48% Hispanic/Latino, 5% Asian and 4% White. Students who gave purpose-oriented reasons for attending college (e.g., “I want to become an educated citizen that can contribute to society”) vs. extrinsic reasons (e.g., “I want to get a good job,” or “I want to earn more money”) reported perceiving academic activities as more personally meaningful, and persisted longer at academic tasks. Further, when students were given the choice to continue solving math problems (single-digit subtraction), or switch over to watching entertaining, short viral videos, or playing a Tetris game, the students with a high number of purpose-driven goals persisted longer at solving arithmetic problems than other students. Purpose-driven students were also more likely to enroll in college during the fall following graduation. Of the students who scored high on purpose-driven goals, 64% were enrolled in college that Fall compared to only 30% of students who scored low on their purpose driven goals. So, while more research is needed, these early findings suggest that purpose for learning can be effective for low-income racial minority students.

    • Jerdonnis says:

      I’m currently working on several research proposals for game-based learning. I had already developed my research questions, but your research has inspired me to add one more. “Do students with purpose-oriented goals out perform students who do not have purpose-oriented goals.” How would you like your sudy cited in reference?

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