Can motivation be taught? If so, how


This is one post out of turn. I would like to introduce the essay "Six ways to demotivate learners" by Manfred Prenzel. Occasionally there are videos and texts that have a lasting effect and that one would like to pass on. For me, Prenzel's text belongs in this category.

The text came into my hands while working at the University of Wuppertal. Now, after the first years of school practice, it has become clear what significance it has for me and my understanding as a teacher. The whole of Prenzel's thought with its six categories offers clarity. His approach is particularly interesting, as opposed to that of the usual books on 'motivation in the classroom': He does not present any methods of motivation. Prenzel is looking for ways to protect the learners' self-motivation by naming aspects of demotivation and counteracting them.


Manfred Prenzel states at the beginning:

“Despite intensive efforts, modern motivation research has not succeeded in keeping the promise with which Comenius began his“ Great Didactics ”of 350 years. To this day, teachers and learners are waiting to experience how, without annoyance and useless effort, but in freedom and with pleasure, everything can be thoroughly taught and learned that is necessary for this and the future life ”. (Prenzel, op. Cit.)

And precisely because the motivation of the learner is viewed as particularly relevant by the teachers, the teachers are primarily interested in how a “high level of motivation” can be achieved. Hardly any book on teaching methods omits in the introduction that the high motivation of the students is an essential part of a successful learning process and that the motivation should be promoted through a sensitively guided change of method.

However, Prenzel makes it clear that it has not yet been finally clarified how “enjoyable and thorough learning can be achieved”. It therefore makes no sense to constantly try to initiate motivation. Rather, it is worth taking a look at how the everyday school life does not demotivate learners more than necessary so that the motivation that was already there is maintained.

According to Prenzel, there is demotivation when the “existing motivation to learn is reduced by outside interventions or measures”. He therefore assumes that the learner is highly motivated in the learning process. Only through the interaction within the learning situation (here in particular: teaching) is the motivation reduced by various external influences. In most cases, the behavior of the teacher is responsible for this.

Motivation for him is both from the importance made dependent on the learning content for the learner, as well as on the degree of Self-determination during the learning process. If both parameters are high, he describes the student as "interested". If both self-determination and the importance of the learning content for the learner are low, we are dealing with an "amotivated" student. Since this is usually an induced condition, demotivation must have taken place in advance. Teachers and learners are well aware of this situation.

1. The responsibility of the teacher and the autonomy of the learner

Due to the school structure, the teacher has a significant influence on the autonomy of the learner. He therefore has a special responsibility. On the basis of an experiment, Prenzel shows that the responsibility that the teachers ascribe to the learning process of the learners is counterproductive. This is because one usually thinks in a product-oriented manner and has a fixed goal in mind. The statement “you should” stands in the way of the learners to discover their own ways and to find different solutions. The setting is treacherous precisely because it often goes unnoticed and leaves those involved in the firm belief that they are only doing something good. The perceived responsibility of the teacher is often diametrically opposed to the autonomy of the learner.

School should have less control, no strict guidelines and less guided tasks. Instead, conditions must be created that enable autonomous learning. First and foremost, this means allowing choices and encouraging learners to take individual (= non-conforming) paths.

Conclusion: Teachers should simply try to act less intentionally and more unintentionally and trust that more of the same will be achieved if one does not constantly believe that they have to take responsibility. Because learners usually achieve their goals more successfully if the teachers act less intentionally. Anyone who sees this as a paradox is approaching the pedagogical dilemma.

2. Structure, target transparency and perceived meaning

Teaching always means that there is a certain goal orientation. This is constitutive of teaching. However, teaching that pursues goals does not preclude the autonomy of the teacher. "Without knowledge of goals and their justifications, of various access options and their consequences, autonomy is a beautiful, but empty ideal."

Prenzel works out the importance of target transparency. Learners need to know the ways the teacher would like to send them.

In the studies cited (see references) it is shown that many teachers often do not disclose their goals in everyday teaching. Prenzel puts forward three theories why this is the case:

  1. Teachers want to get to the point quickly and not waste time justifying content and goals that are not up for discussion anyway.
  2. From the teacher's point of view, the references are "obvious" anyway.
  3. If one thinks through the teaching goals, it can lead to the fact that the content-related references quickly go beyond the “box of one's own course” and thus cause a legitimacy problem.

Informing lessons are one way of ensuring this transparency. However, this alone is not sufficient if the reference or meaning for the learner is not apparent for themselves.
In the broadest sense, the "question of meaning" is touched upon here, about which Lisa Rosa has an interview [PDF] with Rückheim and Erdmann.

3. Adaptation of teaching to the level of the learner: instruction quality

Prenzel distinguishes between two levels of learning objectives:

  • higher learning goals -> understanding
  • lower learning objectives -> factual knowledge, basic skills

Learners are significantly more demotivated by lower learning goals than by higher learning goals. Problem-solving learning, in which you can (and must) think for yourself and find new ways, leads to more motivation.

4. Lack of confidence and competence

Teachers control a lot. Often a lot more than they have to. As already mentioned in the first point (autonomy of the learner), the lack of trust in the learner's problem-solving skills is often the cause. Therefore, teachers should develop trust in the skills of the learners and not control, evaluate and reflect on every step of the work, every little path. Prenzel notes that an attribution based on gender is particularly important here. This applies, for example, to the natural sciences subjects, in which “experience has shown that the boys are simply better”. With the girls, feedback does not lead to a high level of motivation, which begins with "Nice that you made it ...". Even positive feedback can have a demotivating effect depending on the context and meaning.

5. Social inclusion: do learners also belong to it?

Learners and teachers form a community. Far too seldom is there an awareness that there is a mutual dependency that can be cultivated and used. Mutual participation in deliberations and in conversations are very central.

It is motivationally advantageous that an intact collaboration within the teaching-learning group strengthens the need for social integrity. The feeling of belonging and being needed is of great importance for my motivation and thus for the self-image with which I interact in a social structure.

6. What is the lecturer's interest in the subject matter?

If teachers themselves do not find their subject matter particularly interesting, but mainly argue the teaching about a historical necessity or “because it is in the curriculum”, then, according to Prenzel, the motivation of the learners cannot be high either. You could also say:

The motivation of the teacher indicates the maximum motivation of the learners.

It is demotivating for a learning situation if the teacher conveys the feeling that he is wasting his or her time and shows no interest. But what about the teachers who have to go through a course of study over and over again every year? Prenzel gives the tip that one should see the subject matter from the eyes of the learner and thus rediscover it again and again. The role change does the rest to strengthen the understanding of the learner's situation.


If I have now tried to summarize Prenzel's essential ideas, then I have certainly not succeeded in doing so. This applies particularly to the examples and studies that he gives to support his theses.

It is therefore strongly recommended to look for the book in the nearest library and to copy the pages. Unfortunately, the article has not yet been published digitally.

Manfred Prenzel Six ways to demotivate learners
(in H. Gruber & A. Renkl (eds.): Paths to Ability. Determinants of Competence Acquisition. Bern, Verlag Huber, 1997)

This entry was published in General on by Felix Schaumburg. Keywords: teaching, learning, motivation, school, teaching.