Motivational climate


Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance

How students learn, both generally and within their subject/disciplinary area(s)

Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners

What can I do?

  • Role model the behaviours you want to see in students (e.g., organisation, respect, punctuality)
  • Provide students with choices about their learning when possible, and personally meaningful rationales when not
  • Paint a picture of a desirable future
  • Give students quick and easy access to information about their learning

What is this about?

The culture of a classroom in higher education can have a significant impact on student outcomes. To promote student success, it is important to create a culture that supports the development of agency, competence, and connection.

Agency refers to students' sense of control and ownership over their own learning. When students feel that they have agency, they are more likely to take ownership of their studies and to put in extra effort. To promote agency in the classroom, instructors can give students choice over their assignments and allow them to work at their own pace.

Competence refers to students' sense of accomplishment and mastery of the material. When students feel competent in their studies, they are more likely to be motivated and engaged in learning. To promote competence in the classroom, instructors can provide clear goals and expectations and offer support and guidance to help students achieve those goals.

Connection refers to students' sense of belonging and connection to their peers and to the broader learning community. When students feel connected to their peers and to the classroom environment, they are more likely to be motivated and engaged in learning. To promote connection in the classroom, instructors can encourage collaboration and teamwork and create a welcoming and inclusive environment.

What's the evidence say?

Motivational climates are the styles and experiences provided by educators aimed at student engagement.

Types of motivational climates:

  • Mastery climates: promote development and learning (compared to performance or ego climates, which promote competition and comparison). In these climates, educators encourage students to set self-referenced goals, provide them with varied and challenging tasks, and promote failure and mistakes as learning opportunities.
  • Autonomy-supportive climates: encourage self-direction (compared to controlling climates, which are demanding and coercive). In these environments, educators provide students with options about the tasks and activities they engage in, provide clear explanations for activities, rules, and limits. They also promote the idea that thinking and knowledge are not black-and-white but require deep, personal consideration concepts and how they link.
  • Transformational climates: advertise the positive and meaningful future outcomes of learning.

Telling students about the far-reaching impact their learning can have on their lives, and allowing them to take control of their learning has strong effects on motivation, achievement, and satisfaction.

Culture, gender, and context might alter how transformational leadership (but not autonomy-supportive instruction) affects student outcomes.

Regarding transformation leadership, there is some evidence to suggest that students in Western cultures, male students, and students receiving face-to-face instruction benefit most. These findings were not repeated in research that examined autonomy-supportive instruction. One interesting finding to come out of this area of research is that educators also benefit when they provide students with positive motivational climates. Specifically, teachers who are autonomy-supportive themselves feel more satisfied with their jobs, more self-determined in their roles, and have greater well-being compared to teachers who are controlling.

How does it work?

Transformational-instructor leadership

Charisma and intellectual stimulation (characteristics of transformational leadership) are likely to arouse and excite students in a course and make them more engaged with unit content. Being able to trust your educator may also mean that students are more willing to reach out in times of need and get clarity on unit content.

Self-determination theory

Allowing people to self-direct their decisions and actions can be psychologically energising, converting to effort and persistence. When students are supported to take ownership of their studies, they tend to select tasks that challenge their abilities and push their limits. Because these tasks are self-selected, they also tend to persist when they encounter obstacles. In comparison, when students are dictated to, they are uncertain about the future, which can be exhausting. This soon leads to students feeling overwhelmed and forfeiting their efforts. Teachers personally benefit from providing autonomy-supportive environments because they tend to spend more time collaborating and less time coercing. They partner learning instead of policing it.

What's the underlying theory?

Self-determination theory is a psychological theory that proposes that people are more motivated and engaged in learning when they feel that they have autonomy and control over their own learning process. In the context of higher education, self-determination theory can be important for informing the work of instructors by highlighting the importance of giving students choice and control over their own learning. Instructors who adopt a self-determination theory perspective may focus on creating an environment that supports student autonomy, such as giving students choice over their assignments or allowing them to work at their own pace. By giving students control over their own learning process, instructors can help to increase motivation, engagement, and enjoyment in learning, which can lead to better outcomes for all involved.

Transformational leadership is a leadership style that focuses on inspiring and motivating followers to achieve their full potential. In the context of higher education, transformational leadership can be important for informing the work of instructors by highlighting the importance of creating a positive and supportive environment for learning. Instructors who adopt a transformational leadership approach may focus on creating a classroom culture that promotes growth and development, encourages collaboration and teamwork, and fosters a sense of belonging and connection among students. By creating a positive and supportive environment, instructors can help to inspire and motivate their students to achieve their full potential and to be fully engaged in the learning process.

Where does the evidence come from?

We can be confident in the evidence.

This evidence summary is informed by three meta-analyses of high or very high quality. As such, we can be confident that providing particular motivational climates (transformational and autonomy-supportive ones) results in positive outcomes in student motivation and learning. As further detail, all three meta-analyses report high heterogeneity statistics, suggesting that the findings might be influenced by another, as yet unexplored variable. In the case of Balwant's (2016) study, the effect sizes were so large that any unaccounted for bias is unlikely to change the main findings dramatically.


Balwant, P. T. (2016). Transformational instructor‐leadership in higher education teaching: a meta‐analytic review and research agenda. Journal of Leadership Studies, 9(4), 20-42.

Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016). Motivation interventions in education: a meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602-640.

Slemp, G. R., Field, J. G., & Cho, A. S. (2020). A meta-analysis of autonomous and controlled forms of teacher motivation. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 121, 103459.

Additional Resources

Note: If you would like to know more about motivating students in higher education, then please feel free to view the suite of instructional videos by our own Dr Michael Noetel by clicking the hyperlink below: