“There is not enough darkness in the world
to extinguish the light of one small candle.” 
                                          – Spanish proverb

Motivation is now widely seen as a key to learning. The affective domain of Bloom’s taxonomy is considered to be as important to successful schooling as the cognitive domain.

What is motivation?

The term, motivation, is usually associated with words such as desire, enthusiasm, ambition, interest, commitment, inspiration, drive and “hunger”. In psychological terms, motivation is usually defined as some sort of internal state or condition which serves to activate, arouse, energise or direct behaviour and to give it impetus, direction and focus.

Contemporary frameworks and theories of motivation tend to be ingrained in the cognitive perspective. Schunk, Pintrich, and Meece (2008), for example, define motivation as “the process whereby goal-directed activity is instigated and sustained (p. 4). This definition implies that motivation includes choosing some goals and not others, commencing work toward a goal, and persevering in the pursuit of that goal. Studies have found that gifted students appear to be more intrinsic in their motivation for engaging in academic pursuits than other students (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993; Gottfried & Gottfried, 1996; Olszewski-Kubilius, Kulieke, & Krasney, 1988; Feldhusen, Dai, & Clinkenbeard, 2000).

Motivation – the inner candle – is central to learning because its presence can lead to persistence, enthusiasm, commitment, perseverance and risk taking by the student. Lack of motivation can lead to – and be fuelled by – fear of failure, low self-esteem and low self-expectations, creating a vicious downward cycle.

Teacher Influence

Teachers’ instructional practices affect student motivation. The tasks teachers choose, the types of assessments they give, and how they deal with diverse learners in the classroom all affect student motivation, particularly their intrinsic motivation to learn (or learning for the sake of learning). Research has documented that gifted students spend a significant portion of their time in classrooms feeling bored (Kunkel, Chapa, Patterson, & Walling, 1992) or unchallenged (Feldhusen & Kroll, 1991; Gallagher, Harradine, & Coleman, 1997). In fact, a real ‘hunger’ for challenge is typical of gifted students from preschool to high school (Kanevsky, 1992; Plucker & McIntire, 1996).

Classroom Tasks

The choices teachers make about classroom tasks influence rates of boredom and intrinsic motivation. Most research on intrinsically motivated learning concurs that learning:

  • should be under the control of the student (ie., self-determined)
  • may be an innate yearning of the human species (i.e., we are born to seek competence)
  • occurs best when tasks are challenging and matched optimally to our ability levels, and occurs most naturally when tasks are novel or somewhat discrepant from what they expected as they make students curious or interested.

Matching challenge with skills

Csikszentimihalyi (1990) shows that students are most engaged and motivated in what they do when their level of skill matches the level of challenge – or even better, when the challenge is a touch ahead of the level of skill. It also provides a compelling reason for appropriately differentiating curriculum for the various levels of abilities in classrooms.

The optimum experience is when a student with high level of skill is provided with a high level of challenge. Csikszentimihalyi (1990) labels this experience flow, which refers to the feeling of intense concentration and enjoyment people experience when they work on a satisfying tasks. A feeling of flow provides learners with the motivation to continue work on challenging tasks.

Providing task variety 

Having a range of task options allows for students to select those that will provide optimal challenge (Tomlinson, 2003). When students work on tasks that are very different from those their classmates are engaged in, it is harder for students to make social comparisons (e.g., about speed, which is often taken as a signal of relative ability). Patrick, Gentry, & Owen (2003) point out that offering a variety of tasks can also reduce competitive pressures and emphasise the need to consider one’s own progress relative to objective and self-referenced criteria (i.e., a mastery focus). Students for whom grade level curriculum is easy should not be offered more of the same, but given different, extended, or accelerated curricula, with opportunities for independent-study in a related area of interest. In offering such accommodations, educators begin to allow for the depth and complexity that gifted students crave and can handle. Such modifications can form the basis for self-motivated learning in areas of intense interest and meaningful learning.

Providing student choices

Offering options to students is a serious and important consideration that can enhance their motivation (Renzulli, Gentry & Reis, 2003). Through provision of choices (e.g., what they do, or how, or when), students rehearse the fundamental skills of making wise choices and choosing problems and projects that develop their creativity, interests, and personal talent (Moon, 2003).

Offering choices regarding the order of curriculum, specific content, audiences, relevant homework, group members (if any), and types of assessments are some not-too-difficult means of integrating choice into the classroom.


Assessment choices made by teachers in the classroom can easily undermine intrinsic motivation. Some examples might include:

  • Putting emphasis on the assessment rather than on learning itself.
  • Emphasising the grades, rather than informative feedback.
  • Not sharing marking criteria, or making it less than clear to students, making students feel less in control of their own performance.
  • Providing external rewards for tasks that students are already intrinsically motivated to do.

Assessments should, on the other hand, enhance learning and motivation. They should promote meaningful learning (allowing for larger ideas to be explored) such as project-based learning, and match the use of information in a real-world setting (or based on “real” and authentic problems). In addition, assessment should provide clear and immediate feedback about knowledge learnt and allow self-appraisal of skills and/or goal setting for future assessments.

Relationship with teachers

Alexander and Murphy (1998) have argued that when teachers acknowledge students’ personal goals and interests, and learners perceive the academic climate to be supportive and encouraging, they are more likely to perform well. Kanevsky and Keighly (2003) argued that, for gifted students, a caring teacher can overcome deficits in what they call “the other 4 C’s” (control, choice, challenge, complexity). In their study, gifted students valued teachers for their professional commitment and because they were fair yet flexible. These teachers respected the students’ need to talk, to question, to challenge, and to dig deeper. These teachers gave students some control over aspects of their learning and show a concern for all individuals’ well-being. In sum, these teachers were enthusiastic about interacting with gifted students.

Teacher enthusiasm

Teachers’ enthusiasm for the subjects and the students they teach is a powerful factor in fostering motivational behaviour (Brophy, 2004; Patrick et al., 2003). Their enthusiasm centres around enjoyment of the process of learning in its own right. They emphasise intrinsic and enjoyable aspects of engaging in tasks, and in achieving competence in them. Effective teachers of the gifted students connect with their students in personally meaningful ways, and serve more as guides and mentors and less as lecturers and deliverers of content. They inspire, respect and expect great things from their students, and their students come up to their expectations (Feldhusen, 1997).

Concluding Thought

Teachers can use a range of strategies to motivate gifted learners in classrooms. Effective teachers engage gifted students’ hearts and minds in learning, foster the students’ self-efficacy, and help them become confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.


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Patrick, H., Gentry, M. & Owen, S. V. (2006). Motivation and Gifted Adolescents. In F. A. Dixon & S. M. Moon, The Handbook of Secondary Gifted Education (pp. 165-189). Wacko, TX: Prufrock.

Patrick, H., Turner, J. C., Meyer, D. K., & Midgley, C. (2003). How teachers establish psychological environments during the first days of school: Association with avoidance in mathematics. Teachers College Record, 105, 1521-1558.

Plucker, J. A., & McIntire, J. (1996). Academic survivability in high-potential, middle school students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 40, 7-14.

Renzulli, R. J., Gentry, M. & Reis, S. M. (2003). Enrichment clusters: A practical plan for real-world, student-driven learning. CT: Creative Learning Press.

Schunk, D. H., Pintrich, P. R., & Meece, M. L. (2008). History of giftedness: Perspectives from the past presage modern scholarship. In S. Pfeiffer (Ed.), Handbook on giftedness in children: Psycho-educational theory, research, and best practices (pp. 13-31). New York, NY: Springer Science.


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