Student motivation is one main contributor to students' educational success. From a pedagogical point of view students are either seen as intrinsically motivated learners and subjects of their own life and learning, or as objects of teaching and extrinsically motivated into performing tasks that the formal education provides them with and expects them to pass.
Extrinsically motivated students are more obedient and they react positively to grades, stickers, diplomas and other types of rewards. At best they're compliant and easy to deal with (at worst they become High School dropouts). Extrinsic motivation means the control of the learning being placed outside of the student, on the shoulders as parents and teachers - and the system.
Intrinsically motivated students are interested in learning, and often want more than just completing assignments or passing the tests. They are sometimes harder to "teach" because they have their own goals and are interested in gaining knowledge (that might or might not fit into the curriculum to be taught),. Intrinsic motivation means the drive for learning coming from within, which can lead talented students to become underachievers if they are provided with external motivators.
Furthermore, recent research suggests1 that while (mental and/or emotional) learning environment affects students' motivational beliefs, their own motivational characteristics should be taken into account while planning the instruction. Teaching intrinsically motivated students is very different from teaching students with strong extrinsic motivation.
Of course the situation seldom is this black and white. We all employ both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation during our learning. The balance is what matters. Well balanced motivation helps students to be successful in their studies.
Defining success is not easy, and sometimes we get tangled in details and want to define students’ success as mastery of a single subject or unit, or course. In contemporary education negotiating meaning is more important than ever before, just to be sure that we are talking about the same concept/word/idea – and the word "success" certainly has several different connotations. We must be very careful, though, not to kill the intrinsic learning motivation by applying unnecessary power over students, and forcing them into performing according to expectations that don't contribute to their learning (i.e. practices that benefit school more than students). Often the use of power is disguised as success – but do students really need to perform according to minor details, or should we emphasize understanding the concepts and entities, so that the learned skill is transferable and students are motivated to learn and not just pass?
To me student success means simply making myself unnecessary as a teacher by empowering my students become autonomous learners, who can work independently and who know where to find the information and guidance they need. This requires handing over the tools for learning to students, and trusting in their motivation and drive to get their learning done, but having open and honest interactions with students to be able to help when needed.
About intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
1 Tapola, A., & Niemivirta, M. (2008). The role of achievement goal orientations in students' perceptions of and preferences for classroom environment. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(2), 291-312.