Success drives motivation

The role of expectancy in learning

Hey 👋

Happy World Teachers’s Day! Consider yourself appreciated. Now onto the good stuff: a new Snacks series on the mechanics of success… (+ a special announcement at the end 👀)

Big idea 🍉

Success is one of the most powerful drivers of motivation in school. Why is this and what can we do about it? Let’s dive in:

First up, it’s important to understand that our brain uses unconscious ‘rules of thumb’ (aka heuristics) to make decisions about where to invest our attention and effort. One of the main rules it uses is our anticipation of future success. This is called 'expectancy'.

It makes sense that we have a gauge like this, right? With such limited attention to allocate, it would be crazy to invest heavily in directions that are unlikely to bear fruit. The more successful we have been with something in the past, the more likely we are to invest in it come the future. Success drives motivation.

"Success breeds success."

— Mia Hamm

Students who experience high levels of success tend to tackle more challenging problems, organise their ideas better, and see things from wider perspectives. Expectancy is powerful.

However, it’s also super fragile. The things we teach are hard to learn, and the steady march through curricula in schools can be unrelenting—the risk of failure is ever present, and the costs of it are high: anxiety, damage to ego, and loss of status.

Without conviction that success is likely, initial efforts will quickly wane, before being replaced with apathy, and eventually: avoidance. Over time, repeated failure can lead to deep-seated beliefs, such as: I can’t do this, I’m no good at Spanish, and there’s just no point 😔

Left unchecked, these beliefs can unfold into self-fulfilling prophecies and erect barriers to future learning. Those of us who have taught pupils with these kinds of beliefs know just how divisive they can be. The costs of low expectancy can be catastrophic and stubbornly hard to reverse.

What can we do about it?

Well, success is overwhelmingly the result of great teaching: such as pitching it precisely, breaking it down, explaining it well, providing lots of opportunities for practice, feedback, consolidation, and so on. There are other factors—which we’ll dig into over the coming weeks—but for now, we’re just laying out the foundations.

If we want to boost motivation for learning, effective teaching is the biggest lever at our disposal. Motivation is as much a product of success as the driver of it.

Important → Securing success is not about making things easier for pupils. It is about helping them do stuff they couldn’t do before.

Meta note → All this operates at the level of teachers too... the more we experience success, the more motivated we will be to turn up and give it our all. Yet another reason why professional development is so crucial.


• The more successful our experience with something in the past, the more likely we'll invest in it the future.

• The risk of failure is ever present in school, and the costs of it are high.

• Effective teaching is the biggest lever we have for boosting motivation.

Challenge → How successful do your students feel over time? What about you? What could you do to boost their (and your) expectancy?

Little links 🥕

And finally, I’m mega excited to announce the launch of Snacks PRO 🥳 

If you’re interested in further honing your expertise, supercharging your career, and generally taking your evidence informed journey to the NEXT LEVEL, then you should 100% check it out:

Peps 👊