Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Student motivation theories

Student motivation theories

Overview edit

Student motivation is essential in facilitating a desire to begin to engage in and pursue educational goals (Elliott, Hufton, Willis & Illushin, 2005; Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004; Reeve, 2006). Student motivation is defined as a process where the learners' attention becomes focused on meeting their scholastic objectives and their energies are directed towards realising their academic potential (Christophel, 1999; Lepper, Greene & Nisbett, 1973). Hence, the study of student motivation attracts much attention from the theoretical realm found within the areas of human behavioural analysis (Pintrich, 2003) and education (Deci & Ryan, 1999).

Therefore, this chapter firstly explores theory development as applied to student motivational behaviour. Secondly, major historical contributions in this area are examined, leading to the most prominent advances in student motivational theories seen today. The chapter concludes with a brief summation noting the practical recommendations student motivational theories generate, followed by a short quiz, key terms, web links and references.

Student motivational behaviour is an intriguing area to explore click here to find out why

The Vital Process of Theory Construction edit

Proposed theories can follow one of three options: rejection, acceptance or modification (Fiske, 2004; Kruglanski & Higgins, 2004). Specifically, in considering a proposed theoretical model of student motivation, researchers investigate phenomena that have yet to be considered and generate further exploration and postulate theories in a self-perpetuating cycle (Fiske, 2004). For the ease of explanation, Figure 1 demonstrates the cyclical process of theory development through hypothesis testing.

Figure 1. The Process of Theory Construction in Science
Note. Adapted from "Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.)", by J. Reeve, 2009, USA: Wiley (p.5)Although this image captures hypothesis testing in the science related field of biology, similar principles apply in the area of theoretical development for psychology

What Makes a Good Theory? edit

Fiske (2004) outlines seven criteria in the evaluation of a theoretical model: (1) posits causal relationships (2) is coherent, clear and understandable (3) communicates effectively with logic (4) is parsimonious (5) poses testable hypotheses (6) generates further research and postulates new insights, and (7) has heuristic value when applied practically (Fiske, 2004).

Figure 2. The Notion of a "Good Theory"
Note. Adapted from "Mind the gap: In praise of informal sources of formal theory", by S. T. Fiske, 2004, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 132-137.

Methods of Empirically Testing Hypotheses Relating to Student Motivation edit

Table 1 summarises past studies, highlighting the different student motivational research methodology. Additionally, Table 1 underscores the vast amount of interest in the area of student motivation. Table 1 also highlights student motivational research which exclusively focuses on assessing a learner's behaviour via task engagement, behavioural observation and self-report measures. However, research that narrowly focuses on these specific kinds of behaviour has led to much criticism (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004). Although these methods of assessing behaviour have been described as overly subjective in assessing motivational behaviour (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004) they are nevertheless the most preferred methods that adhere well to the demands found within educational settings (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Table 1.
Measurements Used in Student Motivational Research

Type Of Measurement Behavioural Task Engagement Brain & Physiological Activations Self-Report
Autonomic Support for Uninteresting Tasks (Reeve, Jang, Hardre & Omura, 2002)
Self-Efficacy on Course Attitudes (Lancellotti & Thomas, 2009)
Self-Determination & Choice On Student Motivation (Reeve, Nix, Hamm, 2003)
Achievement Theory as Applied to Students' Reading (Meece & Miller, 1999)
and reading assessment via teacher
Intrinsic Motivation Influenced by Competition Between Students (Reeve & Deci, 1996)
Decreasing Inattentive Behaviour (Zaghlawan, Ostrosky, Urbana-Champaign & Al-Khateeb, 2007)



1 What were three of the seven components outlined by Fiske (2004) when considering the notion of good theory development for psychology:

Be convoluted, be pragmatic and posit complicated relationships.
Be clear, spur on further research and posit complicated relationships.
Be parsimonious, hold heuristic value, and communicate ideas effectively.
None of the above.

2 One noticeable research method of assessing student motivation as describe in Table 1 was...

Researchers used brain imagery/neurological techniques to assess levels of motivation.
Researchers used task engagement as a main method to assess levels of student motivation.
Researchers used behavioural measures to assess levels of student motivation.

Feature Box

{ Picture two students, both are demonstrating a high level of motivation as measured through self-report questionnaires, attendance rates and teacher observations of task-engagement. However, one approaches these tasks with enthusiasm and desire to learn about the concepts presented within his course. The other student, although capable of achieving academic tasks, feels anxious about receiving negative criticism from teachers or below average grades. These two students, although motivated to fulfil all academic requirements, will use different means of motivational process (approach-goal versus avoidance-goal directed behaviour). This can (but not always) translate to different outcomes when educational objectives have been assessed by the classroom teacher. Hence, it is important to note that differences in motivational style do not always translate to differences in learning (as exclusively measured by performance indicators). Furthermore, by trying to change a student's motivational technique, we can erode the progress they are making academically. Therefore, in the area of theoretical development of student motivation theories it is important to note that some research maybe in danger of overlooking important concepts involved because of the narrow focus on evaluating motivation through assessing learning objectives. Research that involves behavioural observations of a students' motivational style and self-report measures, coupled with performance indicators have a much better chance at capturing the process relating to a students' motivation. That being said, it is very difficult to involve some measures of motivation in educational research. For example, the research on student motivation using brain imagery techniques is scant. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise learning outcomes are only one means of research student motivational behaviour and as such results must be applied cautiously. |} }}

Theoretical Considerations for the Notion of Student Motivation edit

Common Misconceptions Involving Student Motivation edit

Christophel (1990) highlighted five commonly held misconceptions about the notion of student motivation as well as empirically based research that addressed each belief in order to demystify these somewhat erroneous misconceptions. Hence, Table 2 consolidates Christophel’s (1990) important information together with current research addressing these five inaccurate (but commonly held) notions surrounding student motivation.

Table 2.
Misconceptions about Theories Relating to Student Motivation

Belief Misconception Re-Clarification
Belief 1: The Unmotivated Student Not being actively engaged in the learning environment equates to an unmotivated state Students who appear unmotivated, direct their focus somewhere other than the scholastic tasks at hand (i.e. disruptive behaviours) (Christophel, 1990). Listless students are more likely to be unmotivated students because they have given up on working towards any goals (Peterson & Seligman, 1984).
Belief 2: Teachers As Motivators Teachers are the sole facilitators of student motivation Although teachers have great influence on how motivated a student is, the student is also motivated by their own cognitions, values and learning histories that often stem from their family and cultural environment (Halawah, 2006; Liem & Nie, 2008; Maehr, 2008).
Belief 3: Forced Learning vs. Student Motivation Learning is more important than understanding what drives a student to want to learn, pursue tasks and participate in further learning experiences Research consistently demonstrates the detrimental effect of extrinsic incentives and punishment on intrinsic motivation of students (Amabile, Hennessey & Grossman, 1986; Lei, 2010; Lepper, Keavney & Drake, 1996). Understanding the student motivational process offers greater educational advantages (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
Belief 4: Threats Promote Student Motivation Threats such as when the teacher shouts, shames, threatens student’s, (including educators forcing student’s to engage in restorative practices ) enhances learning Punishment decreases a student’s sense of intrinsic value and undermines the learning process (Lepper, Greene & Nisbett, 1973).
Belief 5: Learning and Motivation Follow The Same Path The belief that learning equates to motivation as they stem from the same sources and thus follow the same route. Often the concept of student motivation is seen as a cure-all for enhancing learning outcomes An illusionary correlation exists between learning and motivation. Although there is significant overlap between learning and motivational processes, essentially, students must have the skills and ability needed to achieve a specified learning objective, not only the yearning to learn (Christophel, 1990).

Note. Adapted from "The relationship among teacher immediacy behaviours, student motivation and learning", by D. M. Christophel, 1990, Communication Education, 39, 323-340.

Andragogy and Pedagogy edit

Developmental differences in the regulatory processes and goal-directed behaviour a student demonstrates is largely determined by the educator’s understandings of andragogy and pedagogy (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Pew, 2007; Tolutiene & Domarkiene, 2010). Andragogy and pedagogy operate primarily on philosophical principles (Pew, 2007). Andragogy has been defined as the teaching strategy utilised to educate adult learners (Pew, 2007) including high-school and college level students (Tolutiene & Domarkiene). Pedagogical practice is the process involved in the teaching of younger students (Tolutiene & Domarkiene). Researchers Deci and Ryan suggest differences in an individual’s motivation occur not only due to obvious physiological and psychological differences seen among learner's needs, but to a large extent are mediated by the ways in which teachers address their differing physiological needs successfully. For example, the neural capacities that younger children possess are quite limited compared to older college students (Stellar, 1994). However, as neural development progresses the integration of the child’s cortical responses and growth in hypothalamic, amygdala, temporal and frontal cortical areas demonstrate enhanced synaptic activity (Stellar). The neural growth translates to motivational behaviour as the growing students now display a greater capability to concentrate, to persist, to focus and to direct their energies towards educational tasks. Consequently, functional theories that account for the wide variance seen in student motivational processes often demonstrate an understanding of the importance of andragogy and pedagogy in stimulating student motivational behaviour among their learners and have greater applicability and versatility (Pew).

A lot of growth occurs over the first year of a child's life and over the school years from 5 to 18 years

Specifically, Pew’s (2007) theoretical supposition concerning student motivation observes the principles of andragogy as originally posited by Germane-educated [[w:Alexander Kapp|Alexander Kapp] in 1833, and proposes five concepts that are hypothesised to prompt and then support learning processes observed among older students (see Table 3). Additionally, Table 3 includes concepts that relate to Knowles' (1973) Andragogic Theory of Student Motivation as they correspond with the ideas presented by Pew.

In contrast, a pedagogical framework of motivation analysis of younger children’s learning shows students are more likely to engage in educational tasks because of the intrinsic value they offer (Chan, 1994; Lepper, Corpus & Iyengar, 2005). Younger learners operate on pleasure seeking principles that primarily aim to satisfy their physiological needs and psychological desires (such as interest) and hence this is reflected in the way in which they use motivational behaviour to approach educational tasks (Chan). Therefore, the pedagogical implications for younger students are aimed at using younger students' natural curiosities to motivate their learning whilst at school (Lepper, Corpus & Iyengar, 2005). Furthermore, as learners develop, the motivational style they demonstrate has an inverse relationship to that of extrinsic motivation (Lepper, Corpus and Iyengar, 2005). That is, older students, when compared to their younger counterparts, are more inclined to focus on extrinsic incentives such as achieving a certain grade compared with engaging in academic tasks because of the intrinsic value they hold. Hence, older rather than younger students are more inclined to become susceptible to the costs involved with not achieving their desired outcome, such as learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a concept that pertains to a student’s amotivational state, where there is a demonstrable stagnancy in learner’s efforts to pursue their educational objectives (Peterson & Seligman, 1984). Additionally, learned helplessness is seen as the polar opposite of the notion of student motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Clearly, it is crucially important for student motivation theorists to consider teaching methodologies such as andragogy and pedagogy with practical applications for educators and students. Pew’s (2007) theory is built on the premise that andragogy and pedagogy are of genuine interest when referring to student motivational behaviour, and provide important concepts for consideration for future research in model formulations.

Table 3.
A Merging of Pew (2007) and Knowles' (1973) Assertions Related to Theories Concerning Student Motivation

Assertion Description Concepts
|| The transmission of information is viewed as important from the teacher’s perspective and this is emphasised within the process of teaching students || Need to know – Adults need to know why the information is of importance to their learning
|| Showing learners how to direct themselves through information || Motivation – adults learn best this way using internal rather than external motivators
|| Relating the topic to the learners experience || Self-Concept and adult learning relates to problem focused rather than content oriented learning styles which Knowles (1973) describes as Orientation
|| People will not learn unless they are ready and motivated to learn || Readiness to learn – Knowles (1973) suggests learners will approach a task in a state to engage, participate and pursue a task
|| Educators need to overcome their own inhibitions, behaviours and beliefs about learning in order to facilitate student motivation || Foundation - Adults need to experience what happens when mistakes are made and learn better through allowing them to interact within the learning process

Note. Adapted from "Andragogy and Pedagogy as Foundational Theory for Student Motivation in Higher Education", by S. Pew, 2007, Student Motivation, 2, 14-25.

Early Perspectives on Student Motivation Theories: The Grand Theories edit

Historically, many theories have shaped our knowledge of students' goal-directed energies, the focus and persistent efforts students demonstrate, and choice behaviour observed when engaging with and performing educational tasks. Figure 3 demonstrates a concise picture of the major historical contributions in the areas of both psychology and education and helps to outline important notions concerning student motivational behaviour.


Figure 3. Timeline of Theorists and Their Contributions to Student Motivation Theories
Note. “The farther backwards you can look, the farther forwards you are likely to see”. - Winston Churchill. This timeline represents some of the most notable theorists and their contributions in the area of student motivation

Philosophical Origins edit

In early 300 BC Socrates taught his understandings of human agency to his student Plato (Cooper, 1984). However, it was a student motivational process that Plato facilitated within Socrates which led to the development of such notions as the reciprocity of human learning (Cooper, 1984). Aristotle offered explanations as to why people engage in an activity in terms of its intrinsic value compared to the gains of completing the activity (Reiss, 2004). Aristotle's approach is seen as an early definition of the motives that explain human agency by using a means versus ends analysis (Reiss). There is much similarity between Aristotle’s philosophical stance introducing the concept of motives and the later theoretical development of internal versus external drives (Reiss).

Although, by today’s standards these early philosophical concepts seem somewhat out-dated, the philosophical ideas have provided important foundations for the area of motivation analysis (Cooper, 1984) and in particular in the area of student motivational behaviour (Reiss, 2004). For example, Reiss noted that these early foundations lead to the theoretical movement that tried to specifically differentiate between internal versus external motives, and to his own theoretical postulation outlining 16 internalised drives. Therefore, these early philosophical models are introduced as the necessary starting point from which to begin the exploration into theories of student motivation.

Three Philosophers and Their Early Contributions to Student Motivation Theories


Proposed the tripartite theory of the soul (mind) that included three hierarchically organised motives thought to prompt human behaviour:

  1. Appetite: Instinctual Urges
  2. Spirit: Desire for One’s Preservation
  3. Reason: Desire for Reason and Truth
Plato and his highly motivated students listening to his teachings


Endorsed the tripartite theory of the soul but represented the concepts within differently. However, the main technique that is applicable to the area of student motivation is seen in andragogy, teaching of adult learners, as educators use the technique of Socratic questioning to draw out knowledge and understandings from their pupils, as well as creating the desire to pursue further information in the related area they are teaching. The Socratic method and the adult learner perspective


Separated the types of motives humans experiences in prompting behavioural response:

  1. Ends: Engaging and pursuing an activity for the intrinsic value it offers, sometimes called instrumental goals. For example, a child reading because they enjoy the reading process and the book is of interest
  2. Means: Pursuing an activity because it offers an external reward, for example the student who completes an academic class in hope of receiving a high grade

Aristotle proposed two main mechanisms to energise and direct behaviour:

  1. Reason
  2. Desire

Note. Adapted from "Plato’s Theory of Human Motivation", by J.M. Cooper, 1984, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 1, 3-21, and from "Multifaceted Nature of Intrinsic Motivation: The Theory of 16 Basic Desires", by S. Reiss, 2004, Review of General Psychology, 8, 179-193.

Drive and Instinct Theories edit

Drive theories (Hull, 1931; Freud, 1922) reject the notion of free-choice behaviour and suggest that more primitive mechanisms operate to drive individuals to fulfil an internal state of equilibrium (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Drive theory was originally introduced by Hull but the sentiment of the motivational processes he outlined has been carried forth into other drive theories of motivation as it pertains to learning, and does not directly pertain to theories of student motivation. In fact the early studies on drive theory were carried out on goal-directed activities observed in rats (Hull). In situations where a reward was present (versus non-reward conditions), rats proceeded to learn the route of the maze faster (Hull). Hull inferred the rats’ behaviour was a motivational response stimulated by the rats’ desire for satiation and inferred that receiving the reward, the rat returned to a state of inner homeostasis. The idea that reward (versus non-reward) conditions help facilitate the learning process is evident in the current theory of achievement motivation of student learning (Meece & Miller, 1999). Arguably, achievement theory is mainly concerned with outcomes rather than directly relating to the process of student motivation (Meece & Miller, 1999).

Similar theoretical sentiments of motivational theories are exemplified by Freud (1922). Freud generally stated that people are motivated to fulfil instinctual drives once they become psychologically aware of them. However, there are many questions concerning the empirical validity of unconscious drives that were presented by Freud (e.g. Pintrich, 2003; Westen, 1998). Clearly, there is difficulty in testing students' unconscious motives as they are largely unaware of them (Pintrich). Additionally, the conjecture concerning some of the motives presented in Freud’s theory prompted theorists within the field of education to question whether there are possibly different processes at play that better explain the behavioural motivational response an individual experiences (Westen). Although, generally, the broad field of human motivational behavioural analysis has reaped the benefits of such theoretical postulations (Westen), the area that strictly pertains to achievement motivation as observed in student behaviour, does not.

Arousal Theory Applied to Student Motivation edit

Students often face a number of competing demands while at school. Some of these demands threaten internal equilibrium and pose obstacles to motivational behaviour. The link below captures just how difficult it can be for university students who face these challenges.


Link to BBC

Arousal theory as applied to student motivation follows a similar line of thinking to that found in drive theories of motivation (Covington, 2000). That is, individuals reach a state of internal disequilibrium because of the basic need for intellectual arousal which serves to prompt a behavioural response that is focused on returning the person to a state of inner harmony (Covington, 2000). However, unlike previous drive theories, arousal theories do translate to the area of student motivation in explaining why students persist with their studies in the face of many distractions and over many years (Dornyei, 2000). Furthermore, concepts that arousal theory asserts have been used to explain motives such as curiosity, learning and play (Reiss, 2004). These behaviours, according to arousal theory, all stem from a basic instinctual drive and are the necessary requirements for student motivation (Reiss, 2004). Therefore, arousal theory is one of the more practically applicable theories that have been offered within the area of drive theory.

Behaviourist Perspectives edit

In 1911, Edward Thorndike presented the principle of the law-of-effect and re-focused theoretical efforts to explain the influence of outcomes on shaping behaviour (Tolman, Hall & Brenall, 1932). The law-of-effect proposes that organisms are motivated to express goal-directed behaviour following an experience of trial and error learning in which the outcome of their initial response is either successful (satisfying) and increases motivation or annoying and hence motivation slowly diminishes (Tolman, Hall & Brenall, 1932).

The reward of a gold star is often seen as extrinsically motivating. However, educators must consider whether giving gold stars undermines a student's intrinsic motivation

Later, it was the behavioural theorist Skinner’s (1968) animal learning experiments that became the crux of the motivational strategies utilised by teachers to stimulate student engagement and goal-accomplishment (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999). Skinner (1968) proposed the notion of extrinsic reinforcement to facilitate motivated behaviour among learners. This was expanded further by Frank Logan (Spence & Spence, 1967). During this time, research indicated that external rewards or incentives were strong and necessary elements to prompt a motivational response among students (Spence & Spence). This process was coined extrinsic motivation (Spence & Spence). Extrinsic motivation is defined as the means by which an external incentive is applied to enhance a student’s desire to learn (Pew, 2007). Skinner believed that intrinsic motivation was a difficult process to objectify and test and, within his school of thought known as radical behaviourism, rejected the notion that internal mechanisms can be measured empirically (Skinner). Therefore, it was thought through external stimulus and overt behavioural response associations that the student motivational process can be empirically measured and tested (Skinner). It is important to note the contributions gained from these early understandings. It is only through these processes that we can hope to build solid theories of student motivational behaviour.

A child involved in the process of painting for perhaps the intrinsic satisfaction that one can experience from being involved with such a task

The Influence of Humanism edit

Humanism perceives human beings as active participants within their own environment (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Humanism views behaviourist theories on motivation as reductionist by reducing intricate behavioural processes to stimulus-response associations (Tomal, 2007). The psychoanalytic theorists examined unconscious motives that were seemingly impossible to scientifically verify, and had very little practical application in settings such as schools (Tomal). Therefore, humanist theorists began the third wave of psychology following that of behaviourism and psychoanalysis (Baumeister & Leary). Humanistic theorists incorporated a holistic understanding of human nature and provided strategies that not only facilitated student motivation but importantly could be practically implemented (Elliott, Hufton, Willis & Illushin, 2005).

John Dewey prompted the theoretical development in the humanist field related to educational psychology and existential psychology in the late 1960s (Tomal, 2007). However, the most significant contribution to the humanistic perspective was developed by Maslow (1970) with his notion of the hierarchy of human needs. Figure 4 illustrates Maslow's (1970) hierarchy of needs detailing each stage in terms of the desires individuals must satisfy. Maslow grouped these five levels into two further clusters of deficiency needs (including those needs at levels two and three of the pyramid) and growth needs (the upper three levels of needs).

Figure 4. The Hierarchy of Needs as Proposed by Maslow (1970)
Note. This picture depicts Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs where development of an individual begins at the lower level safety needs and progresses through each level towards self-actualization

Maslow (1970) argues that when one is faced with complexities of life, we may at times be forced to satisfy previously unmet desires. Although Maslow proposed we are all motivated towards the peak of the pyramid in a bid to reach the fifth and final stage known as self-actualisation, not many people are able to fulfil this last desire, as lower level needs often resurface.

Maslow’s (1970) principles, have wide spread applications especially in educational settings (Elliott, Hufton, Willis & Illushin, 2005). Additionally, educators who want to facilitate student motivation understand that at times pupils move forwards and backwards within the levels as needs arise (Elliott et al, 2005). A modern day example of the application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in schools is seen in the provision of breakfast clubs for students whose hunger may challenge their capacity to sustain attention and energy when trying to engage and complete an educational activity (Tomal, 2007). Another example of using the hierarchical organisation of needs is demonstrated by teachers providing opportunities for students to work collaboratively on class projects, as their needs for belonging and acceptance are met (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

Maslow’s (1970) theory provides conspicuous and distinct understandings of general motivational processes, as well as a means of empirically investigating the ideas within the theory and offers rewarding insights into student motivational behaviour in a practical sense. However, like most theoretical models of motivation, Maslow provided future scope for further research (Kiel, 1999).

Early Social-Cognitive Concepts within Theories of Student Motivation edit

The notion of oneself in reflection of one’s social place in the world is a social-cognitive rather than cognitive perspective and was originally introduced by theorist William James in the late 1800s (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). The notion of self-efficacy serves as the intermediary functional device in an individual’s use of self-regulated mechanisms and is largely considered a metacognitive construct (Zimmerman & Schunk). Self-efficacy involves the self-evaluation of an individual’s perceived skills in reflection of the situation they are experiencing (Bandura). Bandura is the most notable contributor in postulating ideas within the social learning theoretical framework that are applicable to the notion of student motivation (Lancellotti & Thomas, 2009).

Bandura (1982) presupposes there is a rich interplay within the dynamic process of motivation as the social environment helps in providing feedback about an individual’s successful (or unsuccessful) attempts to use their skills. The three part process outlined by Bandura (1999) is known as reciprocal determinism and is illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Bandura's Notion of Reciprocal Determinism With Three Important Agents
Note. Adapted from "Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective", by A. Bandura, 1999, Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2, 21-47.

Self-efficacy can be conceptualised along a continuum with self-doubt at the opposing end to self-efficacy (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Students are presupposed to move along the continuum according to the many different experiences they encounter in reaction to their perceived skills (Bandura, 1999). Researchers indicate self-efficacious beliefs are a powerful influence on the motivational process (Lancellotti & Thomas, 2009). University students who believe that they possess the necessary skills as specified in course description have greater likelihood of attaining higher than average grades on competition of the unit (Lancellotti & Thomas). Researchers' findings suggest self-efficacious beliefs, student motivation and course descriptions are good indicators for predicting student effort because they stimulate attitudinal processes that are future-oriented towards achievement outcomes (Lancellotti & Thomas). Additionally, other research supports Lancellotti and Thomas’ notion that self-efficacious cognitions feed a person’s beliefs concerning self-competence to such a large degree that approach-behaviour toward goals is highly correlated (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Social feedback is one means by which students gather information as to their skill success during a collaborative learning process (Reeve & Deci, 1996). Hence, self-efficacy is both a social and cognitive requirement.

Two Current Student Motivation Theories – Unifying Theories of Student Motivation edit

Self-Determination Theory edit

The theory of self-determination emerged from the ashes of behaviourism (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Self-determination theory revolves around behaviourists' notion of intrinsic motivation with a strong positive relationship between students’ feelings of autonomy and perceptions of choice, perceived competence, and relatedness to experiences (Reeve & Deci, 1996). Although there is much conjecture over the reliance of perceived choice as a predictor of a student’s self-determination behaviours (Reeve, Nix & Hamm, 2003), other researchers have found a strong positive correlation exists between self-determination and internal locus of causality and volitation as influenced by students’ perceived choice (Reeve, et al. 2003). For example, the concept known as locus of causality as it pertains to motivational drives, parallels the process of autonomy as outlined in the self-determination theory (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987) while the concept of competence (within self-determination theory) strikes a remarkable similarity to that of self-efficacy as proposed by Bandura (1999). Nevertheless, research findings consistently demonstrate that self-determination is the vital ingredient that prompts a student’s motivational response in postulating such a unified theory relating directly to the area of student motivation (Reeve & Deci, 1996). The three main psychological needs outlined by Ryan and Deci in formulating the self-determination theory of motivation remains firstly autonomy, secondly relatedness and thirdly perceived competence (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Venn Diagram Depicting Relationships Among Components Identified in Self-Determination Theory
Note. Adapted from "The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Need and Self-determination of Behaviour" by E. L. Deci and R. M. Ryan (2000). Psychological Inquiry, 4, 227-268.</a>

Self-determination theory asserts the major problem currently seen within schools is over-dependence on extrinsic motivational devices, which has led to the current erosion of students’ natural intrinsic drives. As such, students today are often forced to look towards outcomes and as such have become teacher-dependent, awaiting instruction and constant approval from the educator (Ryan & Deci, 1996). Students no longer seem to be able to just enjoy the process of learning out of natural curiosity and inquisitiveness while regulating their own development and hence many students display off-task behaviour (Reiss, 2004, Ryan & Deci, 2006).

Grolnick and Ryan (1987) examined the motivational influences of autonomy among 91 fifth grade primary school children. The researchers noted the influence of controlling versus non-controlling teachers in regard to a learning exercise (Grolnick & Ryan). Children in the non-controlling environment were allowed the freedom to choose from a select group of tasks after receiving the initial teacher-direction, conducive to the notion of autonomy (Grolnick & Ryan). Conversely the children who were subjected to a teacher-led and teacher-monitored rote learning exercise provided an environment that was more controlling (Grolnick & Ryan). Results from this study indicated that students' perceived choice over their learning experience fuelled their psychological need for autonomy (and relatedness) as assessed by learning outcomes of the experiment and children’s self-report measures (Grolnick & Ryan). In contrast, the group of children who experienced the controlling environment subsequently rated the learning experiences as highly stressful. The children in the controlling condition had slower progress toward the learning objective and performed at a less than average standard within the task (Grolnick & Rya). Other studies have recorded similar results and support the theory of self-determination which is currently regarded as being the most practically applicable for educators (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Reeve, Bolt & Cai, 1999; Reeve & Jang, 2006; Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon & Barch, 2004).

Attribution Theory edit

Attribution theory posits that motivational drives operate from within our cognitive processes (Weiner, 1985).

Table 4.
Weiner's (1965) Attributional Concepts and Examples

Concept Description
Locus Internal versus external
Stability Stability across time
Controllability Causes that are perceived as either in the individuals personal control (i.e. natural ability) or out of their personal control (i.e. chance)
Intentionality Attributions that explain purposeful behaviour or not in perceptions of failure/ success within experience
Globality Applicability in different settings

Note. Adapted from "An Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation and Emotion" by B. Weiner, 1985, Psychological Review, 92, 584-573.

Table 5.

Weiner's Theory Presented According to Perceived Locus of Causality and Attribution Regarding Controllability

Internally Perceived Locus: Externally Perceived Locus
Attributions of No Control Ability Chance/Luck
Attributions of Control Effort Task Difficulty

Note. Adapted from "An Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation and Emotion", by B. Weiner,1985, Psychological Review, 92, 548-573.

Heider in 1958, then [[w:Attribution_theory|Weiner in 1974] offered the first cognitive perspective of achievement, known as attribution theor (Weiner, 1985). Attribution theory states that an individual's thoughtful interpretations of event experiences give the individual insight into whether they are successful in mastering their environment (Weiner). This led to the development of concepts related to self and cognitive perspectives of control over one’s environment as posed by Rotter (1990) in his theory of locus of control and White’s (1959) earlier notions of mastery control. Hence, attribution theory pertaining to the process of student motivation has historical origins in other psychological theories of motivational behaviour.

Weiner’s (1985) attributional theory regarding student motivation suggests that individuals perceive successes and failures in terms of casual structures that share common elements and are mediated by emotional responses and direct motivational energies. The common elements include locus, stability, controllability, intentionality and globality (Weiner, 1985) and are presented in Table 5.

Researchers have argued that it is difficult to discern the exact cognitions that lead to the establishment of longer-lasting thoughts concerning how an individual predicts their future learning experiences (Kelley & Michela, 1980). However, there is much conjecture about this (Tolman, Hall & Bretnall, 1932). Theorists have included behavioural measures in repostulating the attributional processes and this offers a method of assessing the cognitive processes (Kelley & Michela, 1980). Additionally, researchers Kelley and Michela (1980) diagrammatically outline the range of theoretical postulations differentiating attribution from attributional theories of motivational processing.

Table 6 shows a matrix demonstrating how Weiner’s (1985) causal elements influence a student’s thinking and hence their motivation to approach and engage in learning while at school.

Table 6.

Practical Examples of Excuses Student's Give for Failure Depending on their Attributional Style

Combinations of Causal Attributions Reasons Students Give for Failure
  • Don't have the required skills
  • I never study becuase I choose to party.
  • I was too sick to hand in my paper on the due date.
  • Did not study for this particular exam.
  • School has tough requirements.
  • The instructor is biased.
  • Bad luck.
  • Friends and family failed to help.
Note. Adapted from Educational Psychology (p.423), by J.W. Santrock, 2004, New York, USA: McGraw-Hill.

Weiner’s (1985) two most influential elements of locus of control are compared with the individual’s belief in their sense of personal control. For example, in educational settings students may perceive they have both ability and control in a situation and hence are defined as motivated students (Weiner). However, if students perceive that no matter what effort they put into a learning task it is ultimately left to luck, fate or the teacher’s current mood to determine their grade, they may feel less motivation to engage in an educational activity (Weiner). Weiner’s notions of the level of task difficulty in negating student motivation is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects Deci and Ryan (2000) adopt in their self-determination theory. Similar to Deci and Ryan’s notion of competence, Weiner states that if a student thinks he/she lacks the skills needed to achieve a set task but is left feeling responsible for favourable outcomes, the feelings of anxiety that are generated decrease his/her motivational response.

Another similarity in the notion of attributions in influencing approach behaviours is seen currently in Csikszentmihalyi’s (1997) concept of positive psychology and the notion of flow as applied to the study of learning and student motivation. Flow is defined as a condition in which an individual feels there is a close match between their perceived skills and the level of challenge an activity offers (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Similar to Weiner’s (1985) hypothesised outcomes illustrated within attribution theory, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) presents flow as one of many outcomes that arise from a balance between challenge and the necessary skills to deal with such a challenge.

One of the practical implementations of such a theory could be for educators to be wary of the level of task difficulty of activities they pose, the self-perceptions of abilities that students may hold and find a means to match student activities to their needs in these two very important areas. Tomal (2007) suggests using attribution theory to help students who demonstrate low task-engagement. A child who experiences success may then be able to readjust their perceptions of their skill level and perceived control and are more likely in future to demonstrate motivated behaviour than a child who continually experiences failure (Tomal). Weiner’s (1985) theory gives educators rich insights into the motivational processes and hence, attributional theory has wide application to the area of student motivational behaviour.



1 If a young student, Amy, had the attributions of no control and perceptions she was reliant on an external locus to influence her decisions, she would be highly influenced by:

her ability that she thought she could depend on.
the amount of effort she thought she put into a task.
none of the above.

2 The level of task difficulty can...

determine task-engagement and effect self-perception of student skills.
have no effect on student motivation.
only effect quality of student scholarship.

Implications for Educators and Students edit

Table 7

Transforming Theories into Practice

Theory Concept Practical Strategies for Educators
Hierarchy of Needs
  • Be aware of the differing needs of students when trying to facilitate motivational behaviour.
  • Use the suggested needs to structure the classroom environment and in programing activities/experiences.
Andragogy/ Pedagogy theories of Student Motivation
  • Be aware of the differing developmental needs learners have and design the classroom and programmed activities to meet those needs.
  • Use developmental appropriate teaching techniques to engage students attention and focus while pursuing tasks.
Social-Cultural influence on Student Motivation
  • Be aware the environment can be of major influence in motivating students and aim to provide meaningful programmed activities that reflect student cultural heritage and beliefs.
Internal/External Motives
  • Consider the empirical evidence to discern when to use extrinsic motivators within the class.
  • Provide students with interesting, engaging activities that promote intrinsic motivational thinking among students.
Self-Determination Theory
  • Provide a means where students receive constructive feedback.
  • Provide opportunities for student to work alone and in collaboration with others.
  • Allow for student choice in programmed experiences where possible.
Mastery Motivation
  • Provide opportunities where students can experience success.
  • Help student create their own goals and an implementation plan.
  • Be aware that you are the role model.
  • Encourage students to use self-monitoring tools such as guides, plans, timers to facilitate self-regulatory processing among students.
  • Provide students with specific feedback that prompts reflection of their skill level in relation to the activity. This may be achieved through posing questions to the student rather than providing them with broad statement of encouragement.
  • Teach skills that students do not already have and provide a means of scaffolding the learning process that unfolds using of feedback and questioning techniques.
Optimal Flow
  • Make sure you are competent within the area you teach.
  • Provide learning experiences that match the skill level and offer the necessary challenge.
Attribution Theory of Achievement
  • Consider looking at the notion of attributions and where they might influence us (with older students).
  • Provide solution-oriented activities that engage children in discovery learning.
  • Set aside some time in class to reflect on activity learnt and how they felt, thought and behaved during that learning process
  • Try to dissuade students from becoming overly concerned with the outcomes of learning (e.g. grade attainment) and refocus students energies towards the importance of experiencing the activity instead.

Note. Adapted from "Educational Psychology" by J.W. Santrock, 2004, New York, USA: McGraw-Hill Publications.

Chapter Review edit

Summary edit

  • There is a broad field of motivational theories and numerous theories on student motivational behaviour which are equal in scope but narrower in focus.
  • There are practical ramifications which propel behavioural process theories for both adult and child learners.
  • The development of the theoretical process is cyclical and necessary to provide scope for future research and a further means of gaining practical recommendations.
  • Students need opportunities to reach their fullest potential as contributing human beings. Theories of student motivation offer insight for educators to make the learning process engaging and desirable and to thereby maximise positive school experiences for students.


  • There are many theories within psychology that focus on student motivational processes.
  • From philosophical origins, behaviouristic perspectives such as Skinners’ radical behaviourism, to Maslow's (1970) hierarchy of needs and self-actualisation revealed insights into the needs-based components of students' motivations which are currently in use today.
  • Behaviourists paved the way for future research (and theoretical postulation) in investigating the notion of extrinsic/intrinsic drives in student motivation
  • Self-efficacy is a major social and cognitive component necessary for the student motivational process and developed from and added to Bandura’s (1999) theory of reciprocal determinism

Current Theories

  • A number of previously defined concepts (such as locus of causality and self-efficacy mechanisms), parallel those concepts presented within the self-determination theory of student motivation.
  • Autonomy has been found to strongly relate to the idea of perceived-choice.
  • Competence is heavily reliant upon feedback, which implies that the social environment can facilitate motivational responses among students and educators.
  • Attributional theory, as proposed by Weiner (1997), is applicable today in helping students approach, engage and pursue tasks by creating attitudinal responses that facilitate motivational behaviours.
  • Attributional theory demonstrates similarities to the notion of optimal flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1982) in that perceived beliefs are maintained by students' reflections of their skills and influences their subsequent motivational patterns.
  • Attributional theory illustrates a means of unifying related concepts to explain student motivational behaviour.

Test Your Understandings of Student Motivation Theories edit

These open-ended questions are designed to prompt your thinking around those concepts previously mentioned within the area of student motivation theories. The answers can be found within the text after you have digested the material presented.

  1. Why is it beneficial to investigate student motivational theories?
  2. What is Socratic questioning and how can it facilitate a motivational response from students?
  3. What is an external motive?
  4. What is intrinsic motivation?
  5. What is the difference between student motivation and the learning processes?
  6. How does the notion of self-efficacy help promote a motivational response among student?
  7. Define the three concepts presented in the theory of self-determination.
  8. How do you think self-efficacy relates to attributional theory?

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