8 Motivation in Math

Shannon Sprute

Motivating students is not always an easy task, especially for math teachers. Students all over the country groan as they enter the classroom saying that it’s too hard, or they aren’t good at math, and that it’s not a useful subject. Most students do not feel like they will ever succeed in math and so they stop trying. So how do we as teachers get students excited, and motivated to learn? We must take into consideration how the student’s identity plays an important role in motivation and find a motivational framework that we can apply to our classrooms.

The attribution theory deals with the reasons (attributions), an individual gives for failing or succeeding at a task. Due to math often being correct or incorrect, students often know when they are failing or succeeding. Understanding how students attribute their success and failures can help us to motivate students and help them become more successful in the classroom. Students explain their success or failures in three causal dimensions: locus of control, stability, and controllability.

The dimension of locus of control can be broken down into two parts: internal and external. Students who contribute their successes and failures to an internal cause (skill, effort, ability)  have an internal locus of control, while students who contribute their failures and successes to external causes (task difficulty, lousy teaching, luck) have an external locus of control. A student’s locus of control plays an important role in achievement and motivation. The next dimension is stability. “Stability dimension influences individuals’ expectancies for success: Attributing an outcome to a stable cause such as ability or skill has a stronger influence on expectancies for future success than attributing an outcome to an unstable cause such as effort” (Eccles&Wigfield, 2002) The last dimension is controllability, a students behavior is either controllable or uncontrollable.  If a behavior is controllable then the student can influence the outcome of a task or behavior. If the behavior is uncontrollable then a student can not control the outcomes of a task or behavior.

So, how do we apply the attribution theory into our math classrooms? First, we must look at how a student’s identity plays a role in their education and motivation. High school students are often going through a critical time in their identity development. Identity development is, “the process of developing a sense of oneself in terms of personality and social connections” (Crone&Fuligni, 2019). Identity can play an important role in motivation, depending on how a student sees themselves, and who they want to be in the future.  Motivation changes over different contexts, and math is a class that students often show low motivation in. How a student views themselves will play an important role for their motivation in the classroom. Does the student perceive themself to be good at math? Bad at math? Have previous teachers told students that they are bad at math? Have certain social groups been stereotyped at being bad at math? All of these things can create conflict between a student and math thus harming their performance/ achievement. Understanding how a student sees themselves, their place in the classroom, and their goals, beliefs, and values will ultimately help us succeed in motivating our students.

Teachers play an important role in helping build their students identities and motivation. Teachers ( especially math) can teach and respond to students in a way that helps them grow and increases their performance. There are a few ways teachers can apply the attribution theory into their teaching techniques. Teachers need to look at their teaching and see how they can motivate students by using the three causal dimensions.

It is extremely important for an educator to respond carefully to students and to check their behaviors. How we respond to students’ work can either be beneficial or negative. It is important to know where a learner is at in their education so that we can respond appropriately. Giving positive praise to a student who has not put in the effort can lead to the student continuing to put in little effort or slack off.  Constructive feedback to a student who has failed a task because of low effort, however, shows the student that they have the ability to succeed if matched with effort. As teachers, we need to encourage students to see that they carry the ability for success and that they control the effort to succeed. Math teachers should give feedback that shows effort-based attributions like, “ Well you didn’t quite pass, but your hard work is evident, and if you try to study every day your grade will improve!”. It is also important that as teachers we check our behaviors. Our behaviors can have unintended consequences on students’ identities and motivations. We must show students that we have high expectations, and that they have the ability and effort to meet those. Explaining to students that their failures are due to lack of effort and not ability, motivates students to try harder and use more appropriate strategies and exhibit more effort in the future.

Many math students walk into our classrooms with a fixed mindset “ I am not good at math, and never will be”. Part of the attribution theory is trying to get these students from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, “ the belief that abilities such as intelligence are malleable and can be changed through effort”(Master, 2020). We have to show students that through effort they can succeed. Stereotyped students may struggle with the growth mindset. “Stereotype threat is the concern about being seen through the lens of a negative stereotype about one’s group”(Master,2020). Understanding that stereotyped students may not want to risk conforming to their stereotype, thus not trying. As educators, we can work to understand students’ identities and experiences, and create a classroom environment that gives students a sense of belonging, encourages growth mindsets, expects high standards, gives positive reinforcement, and values affirmation.

Ways to incorporate attribution theory into the classroom are by giving the students enough time to practice during the classroom period. Allowing students adequate time to work on assignments, ask questions, and receive feedback allows students to build behaviors that promote internal causal factors of ability and effort. Another way to do this is by training ourselves as educators to provide feedback to students that promote the individual’s locus of control. Providing proper feedback helps a student see that their ability combined with effort helps them succeed. Incorporating math software in the classroom where students can get immediate feedback can also be beneficial. When a student gets in the moment feedback on top of feedback from the educator this can help to nicely feed their attributions. Educators must also take into consideration that all learners are different, see themselves differently, may have different levels of success, and motivation. Educators need to notice these differences and apply/adjust the motivational framework to the student.

Math is a class that many students view negatively, they have fixed mindsets on it. Looking at students’ identities and how that affects their motivation can help educators. Applying the attribution theory can help us get students from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Educators using this framework can encourage students to believe that they have the abilities, and now they just need to apply the effort.



Crone, E. A. & Fuligni, A. J. (2019). Self and others in adolescence. Annual Review of Psychology, 71, 447 – 469. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010419-050937

Eccles, J. S. & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 109 – 132.

Master, A., Cheryan, S., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2016). Motivation and identity. Handbook of Motivation at School, 300-319.