School culture and student motivation

Imagine walking into a school where the air seems to buzz with enthusiasm, curiosity, and a palpable sense of community.

Student running towards a school building
Photo credit: RDNE Stock Project

Imagine walking into a school where the air seems to buzz with enthusiasm and a palpable sense of community. The walls are adorned with colorful displays showcasing student projects, reflecting a culture that values and celebrates its members' diverse talents and achievements. Teachers move through the corridors with a sense of purpose and passion, their commitment to fostering a love for learning evident in the way they engage with students.

Whether it's a quiz competition, a science fair, an arts showcase, or a community service initiative, the entire school rallies together, creating an environment where every student and staff feels valued. This vibrant atmosphere is not a result of chance but rather a manifestation of the school's culture. School culture is the force that shapes the daily experiences of students, teachers, staff, and administrators, influencing everything from the way classrooms operate to the interactions in the hallways.

đź’ˇ Lessons learnt: The walls of a school should a reflect future possibility and the rooms to help prepare for them.

The role of school culture in student motivation

School culture encompasses the shared beliefs, values, traditions, and behaviors that characterize an educational institution. It is the fabric woven by the attitudes and interactions of students, teachers, administrators, and other members of the school community. It shapes the atmosphere, influencing how individuals perceive and engage with their academic environment. While school culture lays the groundwork, school climate delves into the emotional atmosphere and overall "feel" of the school. It encompasses the perceptions, attitudes, and experiences of individuals within the institution.

These concepts, often used interchangeably, encapsulate the collective beliefs, values, and practices that shape the environment within which learning and teaching unfold. A positive school climate fosters a sense of safety, support, and belonging. In contrast, a negative climate can lead to stress, disengagement, and diminished well-being. Multiple studies including one conducted by Wang and Degol (2016) suggest that a positive school culture is associated with higher levels of student engagement and academic performance. The work of Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, and Pickeral (2009) also emphasizes the role of school climate in influencing student outcomes, including academic achievement and socio-emotional development.

The type of culture in a school can even influence the types of goals that its students set for themselves. Studies conducted by Eccles and Roeser (2011) suggest that a school environment that fails to create a positive and inclusive culture can contribute to a diminished sense of self-efficacy among students, hindering their ability to set and strive for challenging goals. The impact of school culture, therefore influences the very fabric of students' aspirations and the goals they envision for themselves.

Creating a Positive School Culture

A positive school culture is characterized by values, beliefs, and practices promoting student success, well-being, and engagement:

1) Clear and High Expectations

  • Establish a school-wide rubric that clearly outlines expectations for academic work and behavior.
  • Provide students with challenging coursework and opportunities to take advanced classes.
  • Celebrate student achievement and progress toward goals, such as hosting award ceremonies and publishing honor rolls.

2) Supportive Relationships

  • Promote positive teacher-student relationships by providing regular opportunities for teachers to connect with students one-on-one.
  • Take advantage of advances in technology in quickly connecting and getting information across to concerned parties.
  • Encourage peer mentoring and tutoring programs to foster supportive relationships among students.
  • Offer counseling services and support for students who may be struggling with personal or academic challenges.

3) Safe and Inclusive Environment

  • Develop school-wide policies that promote respect, equity, and inclusion, such as anti-bullying initiatives.
  • Offer diversity and cultural competency training for staff and students.

4) Collaborative Learning Communities

  • Encourage teachers to collaborate on lesson plans and teaching strategies.
  • Offer professional development opportunities for staff to learn from each other and share best practices.
  • Foster student collaboration through group projects and activities that encourage teamwork and problem-solving.

5) Continuous Improvement

  • Conduct regular assessments of student learning to identify areas for improvement.
  • Provide professional development opportunities for teachers to stay up-to-date on best practices and emerging research.
  • Use data to drive decision-making about curriculum, instruction, and school policies.


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Cohen, J., McCabe, L., Michelli, N. M., & Pickeral, T. (2009). School climate: Research, policy, practice, and teacher education. Teachers College Record, 111(1), 180-213.

Fullan, M., & Stiegelbauer, S. (2015). The new meaning of educational change.

Eccles, J. S., & Roeser, R. W. (2011). Schools as developmental contexts during adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 225-241

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2015). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.

Robinson, V. M., Lloyd, C. A., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(5), 635-674.

Roorda, D. L., Koomen, H. M. Y., Spilt, J. L., & Oort, F. J. (2011). The influence of affective teacher-student relationships on students’ school engagement and achievement: A meta-analytic approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 493-529.

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Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., & Salovey, P. (2012). Classroom emotional climate, student engagement, and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(3), 700-712.

Roorda, D. L., Koomen, H. M. Y., Spilt, J. L., & Oort, F. J. (2011). The influence of affective teacher-student relationships on students’ school engagement and achievement: A meta-analytic approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 493-529.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Li, Y., & Lerner, R. M. (2011). Trajectories of school engagement during adolescence: Implications for grades, depression, delinquency, and substance use. Developmental Psychology, 47(1), 233-247.

Roeser, R. W., Midgley, C., & Urdan, T. C. (2000). Perceptions of the school psychological environment and early adolescents' psychological and behavioral functioning in school: The mediating role of goals and belonging. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(1), 106-123.

Wang, M.-T., & Degol, J. L. (2016). School climate: A review of the construct, measurement, and impact on student outcomes. Educational Psychology Review, 28(2), 315-352.