Motivation to Learn: An Overview

Citation: Huitt, W. (2001). Motivation to learn: An overview. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/motivation/motivate.html


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Definition

The following definitions of motivation were gleaned from a variety of psychology textbooks and reflect the general consensus that motivation is an internal state or condition (sometimes described as a need, desire, or want) that serves to activate or energize behavior and give it direction (see Kleinginna and Kleinginna, 1981a).

Franken (1994) provides an additional component in his definition:

While still not widespread in terms of introductory psychology textbooks, many researchers are now beginning to acknowledge that the factors that energize behavior are likely different from the factors that provide for its persistence.

Importance of motivation

Most motivation theorists assume that motivation is involved in the performance of all learned responses; that is, a learned behavior will not occur unless it is energized. The major question among psychologists, in general, is whether motivation is a primary or secondary influence on behavior. That is, are changes in behavior better explained by principles of environmental/ecological influences, perception, memory, cognitive development, emotion, explanatory style, or personality or are concepts unique to motivation more pertinent.

For example, we know that people respond to increasingly complex or novel events (or stimuli) in the environment up to a point and then responses decrease. This inverted-U-shaped curve of behavior is well-known and widely acknowledged (e.g., Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). However, the major issue is one of explaining this phenomenon. Is this a conditioning (is the individual behaving because of past classical or operant conditioning), a motivational process (from an internal state of arousal), or is there some better explanation?

The relationship of motivation and emotion

Emotion (an indefinite subjective sensation experienced as a state of arousal) is different from motivation in that there is not necessarily a goal orientation affiliated with it. Emotions occur as a result of an interaction between perception of environmental stimuli, neural/hormonal responses to these perceptions (often labeled feelings), and subjective cognitive labeling of these feelings (Kleinginna and Kleinginna, 1981b). Evidence suggests there is a small core of core emotions (perhaps 6 or 8) that are uniquely associated with a specific facial expression (Izard, 1990). This implies that there are a small number of unique biological responses that are genetically hard-wired to specific facial expressions. A further implication is that the process works in reverse: if you want to change your feelings (i.e., your physiological functioning), you can do so by changing your facial expression. That is, if you are motivated to change how you feel and your feeling is associated with a specific facial expression, you can change that feeling by purposively changing your facial expression. Since most of us would rather feel happy than otherwise, the most appropriate facial expression would be a smile.

Explanations of influences/causes of arousal and direction may be different from explanations of persistence

In general, explanations regarding the source(s) of motivation can be categorized as either extrinsic (outside the person) or intrinsic (internal to the person). Intrinsic sources and corresponding theories can be further subcategorized as either body/physical, mind/mental (i.e., cognitive, affective, conative) or transpersonal/spiritual.

In current literature, needs are now viewed as dispositions toward action (i.e., they create a condition that is predisposed towards taking action or making a change and moving in a certain direction). Action or overt behavior may be initiated by either positive or negative incentives or a combination of both. The following chart provides a brief overview of the different sources of motivation (internal state) that have been studied. While initiation of action can be traced to each of these domains, it appears likely that initiation of behavior may be more related to emotions and/or the affective area (optimism vs. pessimism; self- esteem; etc.) while persistence may be more related to conation (volition) or goal-orientation. 

Sources of Motivational Needs
behavioral/external 
  • elicited by stimulus associated/connected to innately connected stimulus
  • obtain desired, pleasant consequences (rewards) or escape/avoid undesired, unpleasant consequences
social   
  • imitate positive models
  • be a part of a group or a valued member
biological
  • increase/decrease stimulation (arousal)
  • activate senses (taste, touch, smell, etc.
  • decrease hunger, thirst, discomfort, etc.
  • maintain homeostasis, balance
cognitive
  • maintain attention to something interesting or threatening
  • develop meaning or understanding
  • increase/decrease cognitive disequilibrium; uncertainty
  • solve a problem or make a decision
  • figure something out
  • eliminate threat or risk
affective 
  • increase/decrease affective dissonance
  • increase feeling good
  • decrease feeling bad
  • increase security of or decrease threats to self-esteem
  • maintain levels of optimism and enthusiasm
conative 
  • meet individually developed/selected goal
  • obtain personal dream
  • develop or maintain self-efficacy
  • take control of one's life
  • eliminate threats to meeting goal, obtaining dream
  • reduce others' control of one's life
spiritual 
  • understand purpose of one's life
  • connect self to ultimate unknowns

Theories of motivation

Many of the theories of motivation address issues introduced previously in these materials. The following provides a brief overview to any terms or concepts that have not been previously discussed.

Behavioral

Each of the major theoretical approaches in behavioral learning theory posits a primary factor in motivation. Classical conditioning states that biological responses to associated stimuli energize and direct behavior. Operant learning states the primary factor is consequences: the application of reinforcers provides incentives to increase behavior; the application of punishers provides disincentives that result in a decrease in behavior.

Cognitive

There are several motivational theories that trace their roots to the information processing approach to learning. These approaches focus on the categories and labels people use help to identify thoughts, emotions, dispositions, and behaviors.

The first is cognitive dissonance theory which is in some respects similar to disequilibrium in Piaget's theory of cognitive development. This theory was developed by Leon Festinger (1957) and states that when there is a discrepancy between two beliefs, two actions, or between a belief and an action, we will act to resolve conflict and discrepancies. The implication is that if we can create the appropriate amount of disequilibrium, this will in turn lead to the individual changing his or her behavior which in turn will lead to a change in thought patterns which in turn leads to more change in behavior.

A second cognitive approach is attribution theory (Heider, 1958; Weiner, 1974). This theory proposes that every individual tries to explain success or failure of self and others by offering certain "attributions." These attributions are either internal or external and are either under control or not under control. The following chart shows the four attributions that result from a combination of internal or external locus of control and whether or not control is possible.

  Internal External
No Control Ability Luck
Control Effort Task Difficulty

In a teaching/learning environment, it is important to assist the learner to develop a self-attribution explanation of effort (internal, control). If the person has an attribution of ability (internal, no control) as soon as the individual experiences some difficulties in the learning process, he or she will decrease appropriate learning behavior (e.g., I'm not good at this). If the person has an external attribution, then nothing the person can do will help that individual in a learning situation (i.e., responsibility for demonstrating what has been learned is completely outside the person). In this case, there is nothing to be done by the individual when learning problems occur.

A third cognitive approach is expectancy theory (Vroom, 1964) which proposes the following equation:

Motivation = Perceived Probability of Success (Expectancy) *
Connection of Success and Reward (Instrumentality) *
Value of Obtaining Goal (Valance, Value)

Summary

Psychoanalytic theories

Humanistic Theories

Social Learning

Social learning (or observational) theory suggests that modeling (imitating others) and vicarious learning (watching others have consequences applied to their behavior) are important motivators of behavior.

Social Cognition

Social cognition theory proposes reciprocal determination as a primary factor in both learning and motivation. In this view, the environment, an individual's behavior, and the individual's characteristics (e.g., knowledge, emotions, cognitive development) both influence and are influenced by each other two components. Bandura (1986, 1997) highlights self-efficacy (the belief that a particular action is possible and that the individual can accomplish it) and self-regulation (the establishment of goals, the development of a plan to attain those goals, the commitment to implement that plan, the actual implementation of the plan, and subsequent actions of reflection and modification or redirection. The work of Ames (1992) and Dweck (1986) discussed below is a major component of social cognitive views on motivation.

Transpersonal or Spiritual Theories

Most of the transpersonal or spiritual theories deal with the meaningfulness of our lives or ultimate meanings. Abraham Maslow (1954) has also been influential in this approach to motivation. Other influential scholars included Gordon Allport (1955), Victor Frankl (1998), William James (1997), Carl Jung (1953, 1997), Ken Wilber (1998).

Achievement motivation

Impacting motivation in the classroom

References


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