Perspectives on motivation of post-16 students with a focus on BTEC

SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow, Saba Sayed-Marikar asks ‘How can I enable intrinsic/mastery orientation to result in lifelong learners?’. Throughout this think piece, Saba unpicks what motivates our students to progress and succeed, and whether choosing to study BTEC or A-level plays a part in this.


The challenge for BTEC leadership is to engage and motivate a student cohort that invariably find themselves on a course that is not their first choice. The usual preference for students who wish to continue their studies is A-levels, but their GCSE grades are insufficient and BTEC is often the only option available. Therefore, students enter BTEC with a sense of underachievement.

As an Applied Science BTEC Leader one of the key blockers to improving overall student performance is the lack of confidence and self-belief of the BTEC student cohort compared to the A-level students. The consequences of this include a general apathy towards learning that translates to mediocre performance and consequently risks confirming negative ideas of self that can last a lifetime.

A critical difference when comparing BTEC and A- level students was that A-level students generally tended to persist longer in the face of difficulty, while BTEC students were quicker to give up or give in to other distractions.

Purpose and approach

The purpose of this study was to understand what motivated the students to study BTEC, to compare these with A-level students and to develop strategies to improve motivation. The data was a combination of student surveys, classroom discussion and focus groups.

Embedding formative assessment – 25% increase in rate of progress

Covid-19 was an undeniable factor in student learning and so we needed to understand how that may have impacted motivation before making more general conclusions. Our survey question set was as follows:

  1. What motivates you to study?
  2. Rate your motivation at the beginning of year 12.
  3. Give a reason for this.
  4. Rate your motivation during the lockdown.
  5. Give a reason for this.
  6. Rate your motivation at the beginning of year 13.
  7. Give a reason for this.
  8. What advice could you give to year 12 students who are starting their sixth form education?

Academic literature relating to motivation was used to categorise and analyse the answers (Lepper 2009).

Among the motivation-related concepts examined was achievement goal orientation (Dweck, 1986). Dweck proposed that students who possess intrinsic (or mastery) orientation long for new skills and knowledge. They find satisfaction in the innate rewards of learning. This attitude guides their achievement behaviour, which emphasises contextualised learning. Intrinsically or mastery-oriented students engage with the content, their peers, and faculty, netting a longer retention span and a greater ability to use what they learn. Such students are independent, lifelong learners Chickering & Kuh, G. D. (2005).


The vision for the BTEC leadership was to engage with the BTEC student cohort in such a way as to transform them into independent lifelong learners.

Classroom discussion and experience suggested that the key to addressing this is to improve the ability of students to persist in the face of difficulty.

Understanding what drives motivation

Mark Lepper’s work on motivation includes categorising motivation as either intrinsic or extrinsic, task focused, or ego focused.

In broad terms intrinsic motivation relates to studying for the joy of the subject itself. Extrinsic motivation relates to studying for other reasons, for example because their Parents told them to, or they want to get into university.

Task focused motivation relates to being motivated by the task at hand and to do it well. Ego motivation relates to being motivated by performance in relation to others.

Studies have shown that students who lack intrinsic motivation are less likely to persist in the face of failure (Lepper 2009).

In terms of analysing the data I was looking for signs of intrinsic motivation as an indicator for successful performance.

What the data tells us?

Levels of intrinsic motivation

It was disappointing but not surprising to note that there was no indication of intrinsic motivation in the BTEC cohort, this contrasted with the A-level Cohort who mentioned how they enjoyed certain subjects.

The BTEC cohort included answers such as – “I wouldn’t if I had a choice” to “I need to keep my 18+ options”.

At best the BTEC cohort was motivated by what the BTEC grades could give them.

Levels of general motivation

Lockdown has had an overall negative impact on motivation across both BTEC and A-level cohorts with students struggling to focus and deal with the distractions at home. The BTEC cohort however appear to have had a more pronounced effect, with levels of motivation in a few cases falling dramatically. Levels of motivation have recovered as students have entered year 13 with A-level students generally scoring higher.

BTEC students across the board have mentioned that they are struggling to cope with distractions and focus on the work. A-level students have not reported the same level of impact of distractions but nevertheless it is an issue across the board that is compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Advice to others

It is apparent from the responses of the BTEC cohort that they advise others to only pick subjects “they want to learn”, subconsciously they see the value of intrinsic motivators. They also address environmental factors such as “keeping company with those who want to succeed” suggesting that some amongst their cohort or friends group lack both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Overall conclusion from the data

The BTEC cohort are struggling with motivation compounded by distractions in their homes and personal lives and friendship groups who in some circumstances do not share any motivation to succeed. This is quite a toxic cocktail that can have a long-lasting effect on their ability to learn and succeed throughout their lives. Leadership focusing on implementing strategies to improve the motivation of this cohort will deliver dividends in the short and long term.

Strategies to improve motivation

Improve the BTEC brand

BTEC as a viable option should be communicated to GCSE cohorts and stories of how BTEC students have entered good universities and subsequently followed enriching careers; example Kings College London provide space to BTEC students. This could include how BTEC coursework heavy components might appeal to those with a particular way of working. his will mean students starting BTEC have a better and more positive understanding of what it can offer them and how their knowledge will improve.

External BTEC ex-students

Have successful BTEC students come in and talk about their experiences and how BTEC has helped them.

Have open conversations about motivations

Discussing motivation both in terms of 1:1 and in classrooms will help students reflect on their own motivations and develop strategies to cope with distractions and develop a joy for their subject.

Have study teams

Build smaller support teams of students that help each other focus and succeed.

Final conclusion

The survey data confirms the hypothesis that BTEC students generally lack the motivation to perform well and find themselves in a course that they feel was not their choice. However, they are motivated to progress to university and hence that extrinsic motivation will need to be built on to drive the current cohort to a better performance.

However, to build lifelong learners an open discussion of what motivates students and the importance of finding things interesting to succeed will be the first step in that direction. A lack of intellectual curiosity is an impediment to learning and persisting in the face of difficulty, and the BTEC cohort will need to reflect on how the subject can spark their interest.

BTEC provides options and a way of learning that is suitable for some students, however, these features are impacted by a perception of it being a second-choice option. More work will be needed to communicate the benefits of BTEC to the GCSE cohort so that they enter their studies with a more positive frame of mind.

The current cohort will also need to be reminded about the transformative effect BTEC can have on their futures and then link that to the importance of developing intrinsic motivations in order to build a foundational step that they can build on to become life long learners.


Mark R. Lepper 2009 Motivational Considerations in the Study of Instruction

Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040–1048. https://

Chickering, A. W., & Kuh, G. D. (2005). Promoting student success: Creating conditions so every student can learn (Occasional Paper No. 3). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research




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