Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 6: Student Motivation

Motives as BehaviorEdit

Sometimes it is useful to think of motivation not as something "inside" a student driving the student’s behavior, but as equivalent to the student’s outward behaviors. This is the perspective of behaviorism, which I discussed in Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 2: The Learning Process as a way to think about the learning process. In its most thorough-going form, behaviorism focuses almost completely on what can be directly seen or heard about a person’s behavior, and has relatively few comments about what may lie behind (or “underneath” or “inside”) the behavior. When it comes to motivation, this perspective means minimizing or even ignoring the distinction between the inner drive or energy of students, and the outward behaviors that express the drive or energy. The two are considered the same, or nearly so.

Equating the inner and the outward might seem to violate common sense. How can a student do something without some sort of feeling or thought to make the action happen? As we will explain, this very question has led to alternative models of motivation that are based on cognitive rather than behaviorist theories of learning. We will explain some of these later in this chapter. Before getting to them, however, we encourage you to consider the advantages of a behaviorist perspective on motivation.

Sometimes the circumstances of teaching limit teachers’ opportunities to distinguish between inner motivation and outward behavior. Certainly teachers see plenty of student behaviors—signs of motivation of some sort. But the multiple demands of teaching can limit the time needed to determine what the behaviors mean. If a student asks a lot of questions during discussions, for example, is he or she is curious about the material itself, or just wanting to look intelligent in front of classmates and the teacher? In a class with many students and a busy agenda, there may not be a lot of time for a teacher to decide between these possibilities. In other cases, the problem may not be limited time as much as communication difficulties with a student. Consider a student who is still learning English, or who belongs to a cultural community that uses patterns of conversation that are unfamiliar to the teacher, or who has a disability that limits the student’s general language skill. In these cases discerning the student’s inner motivations may take more time and effort. It is important to invest the extra time and effort for such students, but while a teacher is doing so, it is also important for her to guide and influence the students’ behavior in constructive directions. That is where behaviorist approaches to motivation can help.

Operant Conditioning as a Way of MotivatingEdit

The most common version of the behavioral perspective on motivation is the theory of operant conditioning associated with B. F. Skinner (1938, 1957),[1][2] which we discussed in Chapter 2. The description in that chapter focused on behavioral learning, but the same operant model can be transformed into an account of motivation. In the operant model, you may recall, a behavior being learned (the “operant”) increases in frequency or likelihood because performing it makes a reinforcement available. To understand this model in terms of motivation, think of the likelihood of response as the motivation and the reinforcement as the motivator. Imagine, for example, that a student learns by operant conditioning to answer questions during class discussions: each time the student answers a question (the operant), the teacher praises (reinforces) this behavior. In addition to thinking of this situation as behavioral learning, however, you can also think of it in terms of motivation: the likelihood of the student answering questions (the motivation) is increasing because of the teacher’s praise (the motivator).

Many concepts from operant conditioning, in fact, can be understood in motivational terms. Another one, for example, is the concept of extinction, which we defined in Chapter 2 as the tendency for learned behaviors to become less likely when reinforcement no longer occurs—a sort of “unlearning,” or at least a decrease in performance of previously learned. The decrease in performance frequency can be thought of as a loss of motivation, and removal of the reinforcement can be thought of as removal of the motivator. Table 6-1 summarizes this way of reframing operant conditioning in terms of motivation, both for the concepts discussed in Chapter 2 and for other additional concepts.

Cautions about Behavioral Perspectives on MotivationEdit

As we mentioned, behaviorist perspectives about motivation do reflect a classroom reality: that teachers sometimes lack time and therefore must focus simply on students’ appropriate outward behavior. But there are nonetheless cautions about adopting this view. An obvious one is the ambiguity of students’ specific behaviors; what looks like a sign of one motive to the teacher may in fact be a sign of some other motive to the student (DeGrandpre, 2000).[3] If a student looks at the teacher intently while she is speaking, does it mean the student is motivated to learn, or only that the student is daydreaming? If a student invariably looks away while the teacher is speaking, does it mean that the student is disrespectful of the teacher, or that student comes from a family or cultural group where avoiding eye contact actually shows more respect for a speaker than direct eye contact?

Another concern about behaviorist perspectives, including operant conditioning, is that it leads teachers to ignore students’ choices and preferences, and to “play God” by making choices on their behalf (Kohn, 1996).[4] According to this criticism, the distinction between “inner” motives and expressions of motives in outward behavior does not disappear just because a teacher (or a psychological theory) chooses to treat a motive and the behavioral expression of a motive as equivalent. Students usually do know what they want or desire, and their wants or desires may not always correspond to what a teacher chooses to reinforce or ignore. This, in a new guise, is once again the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation that we discussed in Chapter 2. Approaches that are exclusively behavioral, it is argued, are not sensitive enough to students’ intrinsic, self-sustaining motivations.

As we pointed out in Chapter 2, there is truth to this allegation if a teacher actually does rely on rewarding behaviors that she alone has chosen, or even if she persists in reinforcing behaviors that students already find motivating without external reinforcement. In those cases reinforcements can backfire: instead of serving as an incentive to desired behavior, reinforcement can become a reminder of the teacher’s power and of students’ lack of control over their own actions. A classic research study of intrinsic motivation illustrated the problem nicely. In the study, researchers rewarded university students for two activities—solving puzzles and writing newspaper headlines—that they already found interesting. Some of the students, however, were paid to do these activities, whereas others were not. Under these conditions, the students who were paid were less likely to engage in the activities following the experiment than were the students who were not paid, even though both groups had been equally interested in the activities to begin with (Deci, 1971).[5] The extrinsic reward of payment, it seemed, interfered with the intrinsic reward of working the puzzles.

Later studies confirmed this effect in numerous situations, though they have also found certain conditions where extrinsic rewards do not reduce intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards are not as harmful, for example, if a person is paid “by the hour” (i.e. by a flat rate) rather than piecemeal (by the number of items completed) (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996).[6][7] They also are less harmful if the task itself is relatively well-defined (like working math problems or playing solitaire) and high-quality performance is expected at all times. So there are still times and ways when externally determined reinforcements are useful and effective. In general, however, extrinsic rewards do seem to undermine intrinsic motivation often enough that they need to be used selectively and thoughtfully (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001).[8] As it happens, help with being selective and thoughtful can be found in the other, more cognitively oriented theories of motivation. These use the goals, interests, and beliefs of students as ways of explaining differences in students’ motives and in how the motives affect engagement with school. We turn to these cognitively oriented theories next, beginning with those focused on students’ goals.

Motives as goalsEdit

One way motives vary is by the kind of goals that students set for themselves, and by how the goals support students’ academic achievement. (read more...)

Motives as interestsEdit

In addition to holding different kinds of goals—with consequent differences in academic motivation—students show obvious differences in level of interest in the topics and tasks of the classroom. (read more...)

Motives related to attributionsEdit

Attributions are perceptions about the causes of success and failure. Suppose that you get a low mark on a test and are wondering what caused the low mark. You can construct various explanations for—make various attributions about (read more...)

Motives as self-efficacyEdit

In addition to being influenced by their goals, interests, and attributions, students’ motives are affected by specific beliefs about the student’s personal capacities. In self-efficacy theory the beliefs become a primary, explicit explanation for motivation (read more...)

Motivation as self-determinationEdit

A recent theory of motivation based on the idea of needs is self-determination theory, proposed by the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2000), among others. The theory proposes that understanding motivation requires taking into account three basic human needs...(read more...)

Expectancy x value: effects on students’ motivesEdit

As we have explained in this chapter, motivation is affected by several factors, including reinforcement for behavior, but especially also students’ goals, interests, and sense of self-efficacy and self-determination. The factors combine to create two general sources of motivation: students’ expectation of success and the value that students place on a goal. Viewing motivation in this way is often called the expectancy-value model...(read more...)

The bottom line about motivation: sustaining focus on learningEdit

Sooner or later when you teach, there will be situations appropriate for each perspective about motivation described in this chapter. There will be times when focusing exclusively on students’ appropriate behavior (or lack thereof) will be both necessary and sufficient evidence of motivation. But there will be other times when it is important to encourage students’ beliefs that they can accomplish specific tasks, and still other times when providing for students’ underlying needs for competence or social connection is important. Think of these perspectives as alternatives, to be used either singly or in combination when the time is right.

Because of your own values, attitudes, or beliefs, you may find one perspective more personally compatible than another. Even if you settle on favorite ways of motivating students, though, we encourage you to keep the other, less favored approaches in reserve anyway, and to experiment with them. We believe that an eclectic approach to motivation will enrich your teaching the most, and enrich your students’ motivation and learning as well. If there is a single lesson from the concepts about motivation outlined in this chapter, it is this: academic motivation has no single source, and teachers motivate students the best when they assume motivation is complex. The next two chapters look at ways of realizing such “broad-mindedness” in practice, first when you prepare activities and classes and later when you actually teach them.


  1. Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  2. Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  3. DeGranpre, R. (2000). A science of meaning: Can behaviorism bring meaning to psychological science? American Psychologist, 55(7), 721-736.
  4. Kohn, A. (1996). No contest: The case against competition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  5. Deci, E. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.
  6. Cameron, J. & Pierce, W. (1994). Reinforcement, reward, and intrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 64, 363-423.
  7. Eisenberger, R. & Cameron, J. (1996). Detrimental effects of reward: Reality or myth? American Psychologist, 51, 1153-1166.
  8. Deci, E., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1-27.