Motivation to Learn: An Overview

Citation: Huitt, W. (2011). Motivation to learn: An overview. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from

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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 (2006) 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, it is known that people respond to increasingly complex or novel events (or stimuli) in the environment up to a point and then the rate of responding decreases.  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), another type of external motivation such as social or ecological, an internal motivational process (e.g., cognition, emotion, or self-regulation), 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 (Huitt, 2003a).  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 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.  As most people 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/thinking, affective/emotional, conative/volitional) 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; Franken, 2006).  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
  • elicited by stimulus associated/connected to innately connected stimulus
  • obtain desired, pleasant consequences (rewards) or escape/avoid undesired, unpleasant consequences
  • imitate positive models
  • acquire effective social competence skills
  • be a part of a dyad, group, institution, or community
  • increase/decrease stimulation (arousal)
  • activate senses (taste, touch, smell, etc.
  • decrease hunger, thirst, discomfort, etc.
  • maintain homeostasis, balance
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.


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 (Huitt & Hummel, 1997a).  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 (Huitt & Hummel, 1997b).


There are several motivational theories that trace their roots to the information processing approach to learning (Huitt, 2003b).  These approaches focus on the categories and labels people use to help identify thoughts, emotions, dispositions, and behaviors.

One 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 the person will have a believe that 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 second 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)


Psychoanalytic theories

Humanistic Theories

Maslow's work lead to additional attempts to develop a grand theory of motivation, a theory that would put all of the factors influencing motivation into one model.  An example is provided by Leonard, Beauvais, and Scholl (1999).  These authors propose 5 factors as the sources of motivation: 1) Instrumental Motivation (rewards and punishers), 2) Intrinsic Process Motivation (enjoyment, fun), 3) Goal Internalization (self-determined values and goals), 4) Internal Self Concept-based Motivation (matching behavior with internally-developed ideal self), 5) External Self Concept-based Motivation (matching behavior with externally-developed ideal self).  Individuals are influenced by all five factors, though in varying degrees that can change in specific situations. 

Factors one and five are both externally-oriented.  The main difference is that individuals who are instrumentally motivated are influenced more by immediate actions in the environment (e.g. operant conditioning) whereas individuals who are self-concept motivated are influenced more by their constructions of external demands and ideals (e.g., social cognition).

Factors two, three, and four are more internally-oriented.  In the case of intrinsic process, the specific task is interesting and provides immediate internal reinforcement (e.g., cognitive or humanistic theory).  The individual with a goal-internalization orientation is more task-oriented (e.g., humanistic or social cognition theory) whereas the person with an internal self-concept orientation is more influenced by individual constructions of the ideal self (humanistic or psychoanalytic theory).

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 (Huitt, 2004).

Social Cognition

Social cognition theory proposes reciprocal determination as a primary factor in both learning and motivation (Huitt, 2006).  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 a person's life 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

One classification of motivation differentiates among achievement, power, and social factors (see McClelland, 1985; Murray, 1938, 1943).  In the area of achievement motivation, the work on goal-theory (Pintrich, 2000) has differentiated three separate types of goals: mastery goals (also called learning goals) which focus on gaining competence or mastering a new set of knowledge or skills; performance goals (also called ego-involvement goals) which focus on achieving normative-based standards, doing better than others, or doing well without a lot of effort; and social goals which focus on relationships among people (see Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1986; Urdan & Maehr, 1995).  In the context of school learning, which involves operating in a relatively structured environment, students with mastery goals outperform students with either performance or social goals.  However, in life success, it seems critical that individuals have all three types of goals in order to be very successful.

One aspect of this theory is that individuals are motivated to either avoid failure (more often associated with performance goals) or achieve success (more often associated with mastery goals).  In the former situation, the individual is more likely to select easy or difficult tasks, thereby either achieving success or having a good excuse for why failure occurred.  In the latter situation, the individual is more likely to select moderately difficult tasks which will provide an interesting challenge, but still keep the high expectations for success.

Other Theories

At this point there is little agreement about the identification of basic human needs, how they are ordered, and which theory of motivation might be most basic or correct.  Drawing on the work of Maslow (1954) and those who have critiqued his theory, Ryan and Deci (2000) suggested three needs, although they are not necessarily arranged hierarchically: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) relatedness.  Thompson, Grace and Cohen (2001) stated the most important needs for children are: (1) connection, (2) recognition, and (3) power.  Nohria, Lawrence, and Wilson (2001) provided evidence from a sociobiology theory of motivation that humans have four basic needs: (1) acquire objects and experiences; (2) bond with others in long-term relationships of mutual care and commitment; (3) learn and make sense of the world and of ourselves; and (4) to defend ourselves, our loved ones, beliefs and resources from harm.  The Institute for Management Excellence (2001) suggested there are nine basic human needs: (1) security, (2) adventure, (3) freedom, (4) exchange, (5) power, (6) expansion, (7) acceptance, (8) community, and (9) expression.

Pink (2009) suggested there are three basic drives: (1) autonomy,  (2) mastery, and (3) purpose.  The concept of autonomy suggests that human beings are not as easily modifiable as behavioral theorists would suggest.  The use of reinforcement for physical or mechanical tasks works reasonably well (i.e., there is little or no cognitive processing involved.)  However, for any tasks that require even a low level of cognitive skill, offering a larger reward sometimes results in equal or lower performance.  Rather, if people are allowed to be self-directed (i.e., use skills in the conative/volitional domain), they will be more highly engaged in task performance.  The concept of mastery suggests that achievement motivation is an important component of human behavior.  People will engage in activities for no other reason than it offers an opportunity to get better at doing something.  This is especially true if it offers the opportunity to engage in Pink's third component, a purposeful activity that provides for the greater good.

Pink's conceptualization fits well with Conley's (2007) ideas about leadership in organizations.  He proposed three levels of meeting human needs: (1) survival, (2) success, and (3) transformation.  He related this hierarchy to three different groups: (1) employees, (2) customers, and (3) investors and suggested that meeting the needs of these different groups at where they are can lead to a more satisfied personal life.  Most importantly, he proposed that measurement of the intangibles related to meaningfulness and purpose are just as important, if not more important, than measuring the tangibles associated more with survival.

Seligman (2011) offers yet another viewpoint.  His earlier work on the types of happiness (Seligman, 2002) has been modified to focus more on a high level of well-being, called flourishing, rather than happiness.  His most recent theory includes five components that he labels as PERMA:

  1. Positive emotion: this was the first element in Seligman's (2002) theory of happiness and is the focus of such researchers as Fredrickson (2009).
  2. Engagement: this was the second element in Seligman's (2002) theory and relates to the use of personal strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004;) in the involvement with challenging tasks that creates an experience of flow (Csikszentmihihaly, 1991). (complete the Values in Action Signature Strengths Questionnaire)
  3. Positive Relationships: this is a new element in Seligman's theory, reflecting the work of many researchers as to the importance of social connections (Huitt & Dawson, 2011).
  4. Meaning and Purpose: this is the third element of Seligman's theory, defined as serving something larger than self.  It is similar to Maslow's (1971) concept of transcendence and Pink's (2009) concept of purpose.
  5. Accomplishment or Achievement: this is also a new element in Seligman's theory of well-being and related to Pink's concept of mastery.


Notice that there does not seem to be a lot of overlap in the motivating factors mentioned by all theorists. Franken (2006) suggested this lack of accord may be a result of different philosophies of researchers rather than differences among human beings. In addition, he reviewed research that showed a person's explanatory or attributional style will modify the list of basic needs. Therefore, it seems appropriate to ask people what they want and how their needs could be met, then observing their reactions when those are provided, rather than relying completely on any specific theory (i.e. use an action research approach to identifying what motivates specific individuals or groups; Ferrance, 2000). For example, Waitley (1996) advised having a person imagine what life would be like if time and money were not an object in a person's life. That is, what would the person do this week, this month, next month, if he or she had all the money and time needed to engage in the activities and was secure that both would be available again next year.  With some follow-up questions to identify what is keeping the person from engaging in those activities presently, this open-ended approach is likely to identify the most important needs and potential goals of the individual.  As the individual develops and implements an action plan to work towards those goals, data can be collected on the effort expended and whether that effort was sustained.  After several cycles it will become much clearer what is actually motivating the individual.

There is much work still to be done in this area before those interested in motivating themselves and others can rely on a theory as more than a good starting hypothesis.  However, this body of research can be very important to parents, educators, administrators and others concerned with developing and using human potential.  It provides an outline of some important issues that must be addressed if human beings are to achieve the levels of character and competencies necessary to be successful in the information age.

Impacting Motivation in the Classroom


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