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Motivational effects on attention

Researchers: Dr Luke Sage

Project overview

One constant challenge for teachers is to gain and maintain their students’ attention, in order to maximise their learning potential. It is thought that our attention on a task is determined by both our personal goals and the wider motivational environment. Past research has supported the model that there are four main types of motivational climate in the classroom:

  1. Mastery Approach; an emphasis on learning to improve on one’s own skills at a task (strongly encouraged)
  2. Mastery Avoidance; an emphasis on learning to avoid doing worse than previous attempts at a task.
  3. Performance Approach; an emphasis on outperforming peers at a task
  4. Performance Avoidance; an emphasis on avoiding doing worse than peers at a task.

This project investigated the effects of these different types of motivation and competence feedback on attention and emotional responses over three short tasks. Students from primary, secondary, and higher education took part in the study, which involved completing three short tasks.

Overall, confidence was found to be the main influence on performance and attitudes towards the tasks. Therefore, teachers are encouraged to nurture confidence and self-improvement in the classroom to optimise positive experiences and attention.

Summary of findings
  • Feedback of success and/or approach (rather than avoidance) orientated motivation led to greater enjoyment and positive feelings towards the tasks
  • Mastery approach goals that emphasised self-improvement prevented any drops in task performance when confidence was low
  • High competence conditions tended to improve sustained attention and positive emotional experiences
  • Even after practice effects, all groups improved their scores on the tasks, with no significant loss of attention during the session. Motivational goals were introduced after task 1 and difficulty level increased in task 3
  • Attention skills significantly increased from primary to secondary and again in higher education.


  • Dr Luke Sage
    Coventry University

  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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